Be Careful What You Say In Your Disability Application: It May Not Bar Your Case, But You’ll Have Some Explaining to Do

The best that can be said about Smith v. Clark County School District (9th Cir 2013) 727 F.3d 950, as well as all the case law examining whether what an employee said on his or her disability application bars a claim for disability discrimination/failure to accommodate, is: BE CAREFUL! Anything you say can and will be used against you. However, as explained by the Ninth Circuit in Smith , if what you say can be interpreted in more than one way, this is a question for the jury.

Ms. Smith worked as a literacy specialist at a school district. She had a back injury that limited her mobility. When her principal informed her that she was being assigned to teach kindergarten for the next academic year, she told the principal that her back injury prevented her from doing so. Thereinafter, Ms. Smith aggravated her back injury, and was off work totally until the end of the academic year. She applied for disability benefits and family leave.

Ms. Smith filed a claim for disability discrimination and failure to accommodate under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The employer-school district filed for summary judgment.

Ms. Smith explained that by filing for disability benefits and family leave, she meant she was temporarily disabled, not that she could never perform her literacy specialist job. The lower court granted summary judgment, holding that Ms. Smith could not both claim disability and claim she could do the job.

The Ninth Circuit reversed, noting that employees should receive a “wide latitude to overcome apparent conflicts between their disability applications and their ADA claim.”

So, BE CAUTIOUS! If you have or may have a disability or reasonable accommodation claim, and you need to fill out any paperwork (such as a disability application, workers compensation claim, personal injury case insurance forms, or family leave form) be careful what you say! They are watching you! If possible, consult with a lawyer beforehand!

Jody I. LeWitter
December 23, 2013