In Rutledge v. Illinois Dept. of Human Services, et al (7th Cir. May 5, 2015), the Seventh Circuit reaffirmed the principle that being “disabled” for VA disability benefits or Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits does not automatically mean that a plaintiff is foreclosed from pursuing an employment discrimination claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended, or the Rehabilitation Act. The definition of “disability” under the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) and Rehabilitation Act is different than the definition of “disability” to receive VA benefits or SSD benefits. Many employers will argue that plaintiffs are judicially estopped from claiming protection under the ADAAA/Rehabilitation Act if they have also applied for VA or SSD disability benefits, because the latter definition requires affirmation that you are unable to work.
In Rutledge v. Illinois Dept. of Human Services, et al, the plaintiff was deemed 100% totally disabled by the Veterans Administration, yet sued his previous employer under the Rehabilitation Act on the basis that he was fired due to his mental disorders. The District Court, at a very early stage of litigation, dismissed plaintiff’s case on the grounds, in part, that plaintiff’s VA disability rating meant that plaintiff could not also be disabled and able to perform the essential functions of his job under the Rehabilitation Act. The Seventh Circuit reversed the District Court and held “That’s wrong too.”
Social Security Disability and the ADA Amendments Act – No Paradox
One sentence by the Seventh Circuit stands out: “There is no paradox in a person deemed totally disabled by the Social Security Administration or the Department of Veterans Affairs or some other agency nevertheless wanting, finding, and holding a job, whether out of desperation or by extraordinary effort or because his employer feels sorry for him or because the agency that found him totally disabled was mistaken in thinking that his physical or mental ailments, even if very serious, were totally disabling.” In other words, there is nothing inherently contradictory about a plaintiff being disabled under VA/SSD and also, at the same time, being disabled and able to perform the essential functions of a particular position under the ADAAA/Rehabilitation Act.
The Seventh Circuit’s position makes sense given the differences in the definitions. The VA/SSD definition does not take into account whether reasonable accommodations would have permitted the employee to perform the essential functions. The ADAAA/Rehabilitation Act requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to those with covered disabilities. Further, as explained by the Seventh Circuit, numerous other examples may explain how a single plaintiff can coexist within these definitions.
If plaintiffs find themselves in the position of claiming disability protection under seemingly contradictory statutes, plaintiffs should know that their case will not automatically be dismissed on this basis, there is no automatic presumption against plaintiffs, and there may be a sufficient explanation as to why the individual is claiming protection under multiple statutes.