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D.C. Circuit: disability claim doesn’t bar Rehab Act suit

BOSTON, MA — A federal employee’s lawsuit for disability discrimination wasn’t precluded by her application for federal disability retirement benefits, the D.C. Circuit has ruled in reversing a summary judgment.

The plaintiff suffered from chronic depression while working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. After filing a claim for disability retirement benefits through the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), the plaintiff sued the government for disability discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act. Specifically, she alleged that the government failed to reasonably accommodate her mental illness.

The government contended that the assertions of mental incapacity underlying the plaintiff’s claim for disability retirement precluded her from showing that she was capable of performing her job for purposes of her disability discrimination lawsuit.

But the court rejected the notion that an application for federal disability retirement benefits operates as a per se bar of Rehabilitation Act claims.

“[T]he FERS application forms nowhere require applicants to expressly represent that their disabilities cannot be reasonably accommodated. Therefore … an individual’s application for and receipt of FERS disability benefits do not necessarily constitute ‘an affirmation … that [her disability] could not be accommodated,” the court said.

It decided that the plaintiff in this case could proceed with her lawsuit because “a reasonable jury could find that the statements [the plaintiff] and her doctor made in support of her application for disability benefits are consistent with her current claim that she could have performed the essential functions of her position with reasonable accommodation.”

The case is Solomon v. Vilsack, No. 09-5319, U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit.