Cleveland v. Policy Management Systems Corp., 526 U.S. 795 (1999)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fifth circuit

No. 97-1008. Argued February 24, 1999—Decided May 24, 1999

After suffering a stroke and losing her job, petitioner Cleveland sought and obtained Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, claiming that she was unable to work due to her disability. The week before her SSDI award, she filed suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), contending that her former employer, respondent Policy Management Systems Corporation, had discriminated against her on account of her disability. In granting Policy Management Systems summary judgment, the District Court concluded that Cleveland's claim that she was totally disabled for SSDI purposes estopped her from proving an essential element of her ADA claim, namely, that she could "perform the essential functions" of her job, at least with "reasonable . . . accommodation," 42 U. S. C. 12111(8). The Fifth Circuit affirmed, holding that the application for, or receipt of, SSDI benefits creates a rebuttable presumption that a recipient is estopped from pursuing an ADA claim and that Cleveland failed to rebut the presumption.


1. Pursuit, and receipt, of SSDI benefits does not automatically estop a recipient from pursuing an ADA claim or erect a strong presumption against the recipient's ADA success. However, to survive a summary judgment motion, an ADA plaintiff cannot ignore her SSDI contention that she was too disabled to work, but must explain why that contention is consistent with her ADA claim that she can perform the essential functions of her job, at least with reasonable accommodation. Pp. 801-807.

(a) Despite the appearance of conflict between the SSDI program (which provides benefits to a person with a disability so severe that she is unable to do her previous work or any other kind of substantial gainful work) and the ADA (which prohibits covered employers from discriminating against a disabled person who can perform the essential functions of her job, including those who can do so only with reasonable accommodation), the two claims do not inherently conflict to the point where courts should apply a special negative presumption such as the one applied below. There are many situations in which an SSDI claim and an ADA claim can comfortably exist side by side. For example,


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