No ADA Claim for Teacher on Social Security Disability

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By Kevin McGowan

July 28 — A former Detroit public school teacher with an arthritic knee who received Social Security disability benefits can't pursue an Americans with Disabilities Act claim, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled ( Stallings v. Detroit Pub. Sch., 2016 BL 243760, 6th Cir., No. 15-2428, unpublished 7/28/16 ).

An ADA plaintiff who receives Social Security disability benefits still may have a triable ADA claim if she explains how she could perform the job with reasonable accommodation.

But Phyllis Stallings failed to present evidence that would reconcile the apparent contradiction between her Social Security benefits application claiming total disability and her assertion that she could have continued teaching if reasonably accommodated, the appeals court said.

Stallings therefore can't show she is a “qualified” individual with a disability able to perform the job's essential functions, Judge Richard Allen Griffin wrote in an opinion joined by Judges Jeffrey S. Sutton and Bernice B. Donald.

Plaintiff Must Resolve Conflict

An individual's Social Security disability benefits application doesn't necessarily bar an ADA claim because the Social Security Administration doesn't ask if the individual could perform a job with reasonable accommodation, the U.S. Supreme Court said in Cleveland v. Policy Management Systems Corp., 526 U.S. 795, 9 AD Cases 491 (1999).

But the court in Cleveland said an ADA plaintiff can't “ignore the apparent contradiction” that arises from her Social Security application claiming total disability and her ADA claim that she can still work.

The plaintiff “must proffer a significant explanation” that reconciles the Social Security document with her ADA claim that she is “qualified” if given a reasonable accommodation, the Supreme Court said.

Affirming summary judgment for the Detroit schools, the Sixth Circuit said Stallings failed to make that showing.

Stallings requested a four-month leave of absence in August 2013 after the district said it only had classroom jobs to offer her. A veteran elementary school teacher, Stallings was recovering from knee replacement surgery and her physician told the district she needed a non-teaching job. The school district denied Stallings the requested medical leave, prompting her retirement and successful application for Social Security disability benefits.

Stallings alleged in her ADA lawsuit that if the district had reasonably accommodated her, she could have continued working.

“While temporary leave may indeed be a reasonable accommodation in the ‘appropriate circumstances,' it does not in this instance ‘explain the contradiction' or ‘resolve the disparity' created by Stallings' later claim of ‘total disability,' ” the court said.

The Social Security Administration granted Stallings benefits only after finding she was unable to “engage in any substantial gainful activity” for at least a year, the court said.

That can't be squared with her ADA claim that if she had received a four-month leave, she could have resumed teaching, the court said.

Paul Croushore in Cincinnati represented Stallings. Gad L. Holland in Detroit represented the school system.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kevin McGowan in Washington at kmcgowan@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com

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