Receipt of SSDI Benefits Precludes Disability Discrimination Plaintiff From Seeking Back Pay or Front Pay

In Morse v. JetBlue Airways Corp. decided June 9, 2014, the Eastern District of New York held that plaintiff’s receipt of Long Term Disability and Social Security Disability benefits precluded her from receiving back pay and front pay under the Americans With Disabilities Act and the New York State and City Human Rights Laws. (This decision addressed evidentiary motions on the issue of damages; for a more complete description of the case you can read the court’s earlier summary judgment decision.)

Plaintiff, an Inflight Supervisor at JetBlue, took a short-term disability leave of absence, and eventually began receiving Long Term Disability (LTD) benefits. After that, defendant fired plaintiff because plaintiff did not return to work by the time specified by JetBlue’s administrative termination policy. She then filed an application for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. In her application for SSDI benefits, plaintiff stated that she “became unable to work because of [her] disabling condition.” She began receiving SSDI benefits, and continues to receive them to this day.

The court held that plaintiff’s receipt of SSDI benefits bars her from seeking front or back pay damages at trial.

As to back pay, it explained:

Ordinarily, a plaintiff who establishes she has been unlawfully terminated is entitled to an award of back pay from the date of termination until the date of judgment. … The purpose of an award of back pay is to completely redress the economic injury the plaintiff has suffered as a result of discrimination, and, as such, the plaintiff is only entitled to losses suffered as a result of [a defendant’s] discrimination. Therefore, this remedy does not extend to periods when a plaintiff would have been unable to continue working due to disability.

Front pay is “money awarded for lost compensation during the period between judgment and reinstatement or in lieu of reinstatement.” As with back pay, “[a] plaintiff cannot collect front pay when she is disabled and unable to work.”

In order to be considered “disabled” for purposes of receiving SSDI benefits, a claimant must have a “physical or mental impairment” of requisite “severity”, as set forth in 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

Applying this standard, the court reasoned:

The complete disability required for a grant of SSDI benefits is incompatible with back pay, which may only be awarded where a plaintiff suffered losses as a result of defendant[‘s] discrimination, and not when a plaintiff would have been unable, due to an intervening disability, to continue employment. Front pay is similarly available only where a plaintiff is able to work, but the receipt of SSDI benefits is a determination that an individual cannot engage in any substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy, due to a sufficiently severe mental or physical impairment. It is, therefore, well-established that lost wages may not be ordered for periods where a plaintiff could not have worked due to disability.

The court therefore held that plaintiff could not seek back or front pay at trial for the period during which she received SSDI benefits.

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