Supreme Court to decide if former employees can invoke the ADA for post-employment benefits


Federal circuit courts are split over whether former employees may sue their employers under the ADA for discrimination in the provisions of post-employment benefits. Two say they can; four say they can’t. Yesterday, the Supreme Court agreed to resolve the matter.

It will do so at the request of a woman who, after more than two decades of service, had to retire from her job as a firefighter because of advanced-stage Parkinson’s disease progressed to a stage. She brought an Americans with Disabilities Act claim that her former employer had a discriminatory benefits policy that treated disabled retirees worse than others.

However, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals denied her claim without reaching its merits.

The ADA makes it unlawful for any covered employer to discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability. A “qualified individual” means “an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.”

And therein lies the rub.

The Eleventh Circuit concluded that because the plaintiff no longer “holds to desires” to be a firefighter because she voluntarily retired, she lost her right to sue for discrimination—even though it concerned benefits she earned while employed.

The Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits have reached the same conclusion as the Eleventh Circuit.

The split in authority emanates from the Second and Third Circuits.

As the petitioner highlighted in her request for Supreme Court review, “the Second Circuit has long held that a ‘former employee’ can sue her former employer under the ADA ‘for the purpose of challenging alleged discrimination in the provision of [a] fringe benefit’ earned during her employment.” The Second Circuit reasoned that it would be irrational to preclude former employees from invoking the ADA to allege discrimination concerning retirement benefits because Title I of the ADA expressly prohibits discrimination in the provision of fringe benefits. Otherwise, an employer could “deny post-employment fringe benefits based on disability to any retiree the day after (but not the day before) his retirement.”

The Third Circuit found the ADA’s text ambiguous regarding former employees’ rights to sue for benefits. It reasoned that if Congress had wanted to preclude former employees from asserting post-employment claims for retirement benefits, it could have done so. Plus, courts have interpreted Title VII to allow former employees to assert discrimination claims based on post-employment activities.

In concurring with the Third Circuit’s result, then Judge Alito noted the circuit split and declined to decide “whether a former employee who can no longer work can meet [the ADA’s] ‘qualified individual with a disability requirement.'”

Now, he and the eight other justices will have that chance.

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