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Friday, October 11, 2013

Smith v. Clark County School District: ADA Plaintiff May Avoid Summary Judgment by Explaining Contradictory Statements In Applications for Disability Benefits

In Smith v. Clark County School District, ___ F.3d ___ (9th Cir. 8/21/13), Jacqlyn Smith worked for a school district, first as a teacher and then as a literary specialist. After aggravating a back injury, Smith applied for medical leave and disability benefits. 

On Smith's application for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Smith's doctor stated that Smith was “presently incapacitated” and could not “work at all until released by [a] doctor.” On her application for private disability benefits, Smith stated that her “dates of total disability” ranged from March 31, 2008, to “Not Sure.” On Smith's application for disability retirement under the Nevada Public Employees’ Retirement Systems (PERS), Smith's doctor certified that Smith was “unable to work due to injury or mental or physical illness.” 

At the same time, Smith and the district engaged in negotiations over whether and how she could return to work. Smith contended that she could not work as a teacher, but could work as a literary specialist. The district contended that it could not put her back into a literary specialist position, but offered a teaching position with accommodations. Smith ultimately resigned so that she could receive PERS disability retirement benefits. 

Smith sued the district in federal court, alleging that it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by discriminating against her and not providing reasonable accommodation. The district moved for summary judgment, asserting (1) that Smith was not a “qualified individual” under the ADA because she had represented on her applications for disability benefits that she was permanently disabled; and (2) that the district did not deny Smith a reasonable accommodation. The district court ultimately granted summary judgment, and Smith appealed. 

The Ninth Circuit reversed the judgment. It held that, in deciding whether Smith was a “qualified individual” under the ADA, the district court improperly applied the framework set forth in Cleveland v. Policy Mgmt. Sys. Corp., 526 U.S. 795 (1999), for analyzing the effect of inconsistent statements on applications for disability benefits. Slip op. at 9-11. Relying on Cleveland, the Court first determined that Smith's claims for FMLA leave, private insurance benefits, and PERS disability retirement did not inherently conflict with her ADA claim because they did not account for her ability to work with reasonable accommodation. Slip op. at 11-13. 

However, because Smith had made "certain statements" that "appear to conflict" with her ADA claim, the Court next considered whether Smith had met her burden of explaining these inconsistencies. Slip op. at 13-15. Looking at the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and considering that "Cleveland’s sufficient-explanation standard is not an exceedingly demanding one," the Court concluded that Smith "gave sufficient explanations for the inconsistencies between her ADA claim and her PERS and FMLA applications to survive summary judgment." Slip op. at 16. 

Smith v. Clark County School District is available here

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