Disability Retirement and Discrimination Claims
The D.C. Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals recently issued a very important decision with significant implications for federal employees with disabilities, particularly those who intend to apply for disability retirement or currently receive disability retirement, but also might have actionable disability-discrimination claims. In Linda Solomon v. Dept. of Agriculture, No. 1:07-cv-01590, (D.C. Cir. 12/21/10), the court held that claims for disability retirement benefits, and claims of disability discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act, are not inherently in conflict so as to bar recipients of benefits from bringing the discrimination claims.
Linda Solomon was a budget analyst at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who had a history of depression, and also been diagnosed with agoraphobia, or an anxiety associated with the fear of being around other people. During 2003 and 2004, Solomon had a number of difficulties with her medical conditions, and was forced to miss a good amount of work and take a substantial amount of leave. Nonetheless, even with her disabilities, Solomon was a successful worker who received a ‘Superior’ performance rating in February 2004. During this time, she worked out informal accommodations with her supervisor (so that she could continue to work), whereby her supervisor allowed Solomon to work alternate hours and have a ‘privacy screen’ to prevent distractions.
In March 2004, Solomon suffered a severe episode related to her medical condition and notified her supervisor that she would need further formal reasonable accommodations. Upon request, Solomon submitted medical documentation from her physician in support of a request for a flexible work schedule and to be moved to a less distracting work space. In April 2004, another supervisor ordered Solomon to submit further medical documentation in support of her request for further reasonable accommodations. When she did not furnish this documentation, the second supervisor ordered Solomon to remove her privacy screen and barred her from working the alternate hours — thus rescinding the informal accommodations which Solomon had established with the first supervisor.
Without the informal accommodations, Solomon stopped going to work. In May 2004, and subsequently in June 2004, her physician submitted medical documentation indicating that Solomon was unable to work due to the severity of her symptoms, but that if she received the appropriate reasonable accommodations, she could return to work. However, Solomon’s supervisors denied this request. Solomon applied for disability retirement in August 2004. She began to receive benefits in January 2005.
In January 2007, Solomon sued the agency, claiming disability discrimination in the denial of her request for reasonable accommodations. A federal district court held that Solomon’s claim for disability benefits and her discrimination claim were mutually exclusive, and thus barred her discrimination claim. The court reasoned that disability benefits are only available for those who cannot fulfill the duties of their positions. A reasonable accommodation, on the other hand, is granted to an employee with a disability who can otherwise fulfill the duties of his or her position. Thus, as Solomon was now receiving disability benefits, her disability discrimination claim based on a denial of reasonable accommodation was logically moot and prohibited.
On appeal to the D.C. Circuit, the court looked carefully at a factually similar U.S. Supreme Court case, Cleveland v. Policy Management Systems Corp., 526 U .S. 795 (1999), where an employee receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits was initially barred from bringing a disability discrimination claim. In Cleveland, that court found that there were many instances when an SSDI claim and disability discrimination claim could exist side-by-side, and that there was not an inherent conflict between the two. Using the legal reasoning from Cleveland as guidance, the D.C. Circuit found that there was no inherent conflict between receiving disability retirement benefits and bringing a disability discrimination claim under the Rehabilitation Act. The D.C. Circuit pointed out that nowhere on the application for disability retirement benefits did it ask the applicant whether she would be able to perform the essential duties of her position with a reasonable accommodation.
The D.C. Circuit also accepted as persuasive a Merit Systems Protection Board case which had held that an application for disability retirement benefits is not an affirmation that the disability could not be accommodated. Moreover, as the D.C. Circuit reasoned, Congress’ preference and intention in enacting the Rehabilitation Act was to have employees continue to work with accommodation rather than go on disability retirement. Furthermore, the D.C. Circuit ruled that holding disability retirement and disability discrimination claims mutually exclusive would produce the undesirable result of forcing employees to choose between immediate disability benefits and pursuing less automatic and lengthier discrimination remedies. Additionally, and very importantly, if held mutually exclusive, agencies could potentially force employees to seek disability retirement so that they would not have to provide reasonable accommodations.
This decision is critical for federal employees in the arena of disability rights. It is important to keep in mind, however, that an employee who wishes to apply, or has applied for disability benefits, and who also wants to act on a disability discrimination claim, must be able to prove that she could still perform the essential functions of her job if she had been granted the reasonable accommodation.