In Cleveland v. Policy Management Systems Corp., the United States Supreme Court created a framework for analyzing how inconsistent statements on applications for disability benefits concerning a plaintiff’s ability to work affect an ADA claim.The analysis focuses on whether the plaintiff’s statements “genuinely conflicted with her ADA claim” and if so, whether the plaintiff has offered a “sufficient explanation” for any inconsistency.

The Ninth Circuit recently applied the Cleveland analysis in a case brought by a school teacher.  Over a span of five months, in her applications for FMLA benefits, disability benefits and disability retirement, plaintiff or her doctor wrote variously that she is “presently incapacitated” and could not “work at all until released by [a] doctor”; that she would “be out of work indefinitely”; and that she was “unable to work due to injury or mental or physical illness.”  Her retirement benefits application was approved due to her “total and permanent disability.”

The plaintiff sued under the ADA, claiming that her employer denied her a reasonable accommodation. The Cleveland conundrum was front and center. "This case turns on whether [plaintiff’s] claims for disability benefits negate her ability to prove that she is a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA,” observed the Ninth Circuit.

Reversing summary judgment for the employer, the court held that the plaintiff’s statements did not genuinely conflict with her assertion that she is a qualified individual with a disability because the prior inquiries did not ask whether the plaintiff could work with a reasonable accommodation.  The court also noted that an individual’s ability to work can change over time. The fact that plaintiff may have been unable to work before the beginning of the school year does not mean the plaintiff was unable to work once the school year arrived,  or obtain a leave of absence at that time. Smith v. Clark County School District (9th Cir. August 21, 2013).