In Van Rossum v. Baltimore County, the United States District Court for the District of Maryland denied the defendant County’s motion for summary judgment, thereby allowing a former employee plaintiff to proceed to trial on her Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) case, even though she had previously pursued and received Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) benefits.
Dianne K. Van Rossum was a long-standing employee with the Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management in Baltimore County. In 2009, Van Rossum began complaining of a variety of health issues, which she attributed to the presence of mold, fungus, and poor ventilation in her office. Van Rossum requested an accommodation and asked the County to relocate her. The County granted Van Rossum’s relocation request and her health seemingly improved.
In 2010, upon the County informing her that she would have to return to her previous office, Van Rossum went for a medical evaluation. The physician conducting the evaluation concluded that Van Rossum’s medical history did not support any correlation between her symptoms and her work environment; and, that her symptoms did not prevent her from “performing all the job related functions of her classification.” In light of these conclusions, the County informed Van Rossum that she would have to report to work or face disciplinary action.
Instead of returning to work, Van Rossum obtained leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act; and, once her leave was exhausted, she notified the County of her retirement. In so doing, Van Rossum retired two months shy of receiving her full retirement benefits. Alleging that she was unable to work because of a disabling condition, Van Rossum applied for – and commenced receiving — SSDI benefits. Shortly thereafter, Van Rossum filed an ADA lawsuit in Maryland federal court, in which she alleged that she was a “qualified individual” under the ADA because she was “capable of working with a reasonable accommodation at the time the County wrongfully revoked that accommodation and forced her into retirement.”
The County moved for summary judgment and sought the dismissal of Van Rossum’s case on the grounds that she was “estopped” from litigating an ADA lawsuit while, at the same time, receiving SSDI monetary benefits. Specifically, the County argued that Van Rossum could not now maintain that she was capable of working with a reasonable accommodation, when her receipt of SSDI benefits was based on her contention that she was unable to work because of a disabling condition. Relying on the precedent established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Cleveland v. Policy Management Systems Corp., the district court denied the County’s motion for summary judgment.
In Cleveland, the U.S Supreme Court held that an individual’s “pursuit, and receipt, of SSDI benefits does not automatically estop the recipient from pursuing an ADA claim,” nor does the law “erect a strong presumption against the recipient’s success under the ADA.” In support of its holding, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that there are “many situations in which an SSDI claim and an ADA claim can comfortably exist side by side” because “when the [Social Security Administration] determines whether an individual is disabled for SSDI purposes, it does not take the possibility of ‘reasonable accommodation’ into account, nor need an applicant refer to the possibility of reasonable accommodation when she applies for SSDI.”
Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s lead in Cleveland and its progeny, the district court held that statements made by Van Rossum in connection with her SSDI application would not serve as a bar from her proceeding with her ADA claims. However, despite allowing Van Rossum to proceed to trial, the district court cautioned that statements and documents raised in support of Van Rossum’s SSDI proceedings were nonetheless relevant to her ADA case as a jury could rely upon such evidence to find that Van Rossum was unable to perform her essential duties at the time of her departure from her employment with the County.
Van Rossum v. Baltimore County, D. Md., Civil No. JKB-14-115 (Decided April 4, 2016)
PCT Pointer: Cases such as the Van Rossum case are extremely frustrating for employers. In this instance, the County acted properly under the law. It granted Van Rossum’s request for an accommodation on multiple occasions by relocating her office; the County allowed her time away to receive a medical evaluation (and only after the results of the evaluation did the County assign her back to her previous office); and, the County allowed her to take FMLA leave. Yet, the County found itself on the short end of Van Rossum’s SSDI action and facing additional exposure and damages in a federal court case.
However, although the County lost the battle (in having its motion for summary judgment denied), it may still win the war. If, in fact, Van Rossum’s position in support of her effort to obtain SSDI benefits and the position that she assumed in support of her ADA case were inconsistent, then she most likely will not be able to have her proverbial cake and eat it to. Indeed, the jury – relying on Van Rossum’s SSDI evidence – could very well conclude that Van Rossum was not qualified to perform her job with an accommodation and find in favor of the County. Given a choice between Van Rossum winning her fight for SSDI benefits and winning in a court of law, the County would certainly prefer a favorable jury verdict.
Scott Johnson, Jr. is the managing partner of PCT Law Group, PLLC, a law firm that provides legal services to businesses in Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia.