Does the fact that an individual is disabled automatically make him a “qualified individual with a disability” under Title I of the ADA? In Stanley v. City of Sanford, Florida, the Eleventh Circuit said no.
Karyn Stanley started as a firefighter with the City of Sanford, Florida in 1999. In 2016, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Two years later she took disability retirement and continued to receive free health insurance through the city.
When Stanley joined the department, disability retirees received free health insurance until age 65. Unbeknownst to Stanley, the city changed that policy in 2003, limiting the continuing health insurance subsidy to 24 months after retiring. Just before her two years was up, Stanley filed a lawsuit against the city alleging that the decision to change the disabled retiree’s health insurance subsidy was disability discrimination that violated Title I of the ADA (as well as some other laws).
The district court granted the city’s motion to dismiss Stanley’s ADA claim (and others), and Stanley appealed.
The ADA Means What It Says
The Eleventh Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling finding that although Stanley was disabled, as a disabled retiree she was not a “qualified individual with a disability.” The court pointed out that the ADA defines a “qualified individual with a disability” as someone:
“who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.”
As a disabled retiree, Stanley did not hold or desire an employment position. Because she was not a qualified individual with a disability, the court held she could not bring an ADA discrimination claim for the insurance change.
The court distinguished between discrimination and retaliation claims involving post-employment actions. While a retiree may be able to bring a claim against a former employer because it retaliated against the retiree for exercising rights under the ADA, such a claim only requires that the plaintiff exercised rights under the ADA. A plaintiff in a retaliation claim does not have to be a “qualified individual with a disability.” Stanley could not bring a retaliation claim because the decision to change the insurance coverage was made in 2003 – years before her diagnosis — so she had not exercised any rights under the ADA.
Does the Stanley decision mean that employers can do whatever they want to retirees and their benefits? Of course not. This decision only addresses a former employee’s ability to sue under the ADA for post-employment disability discrimination. A few takeaways:
- Retirees may still pursue claims under Title VII or other employment statutes that do not have the temporal language in the ADA’s “qualified individual” definition.
- Retirees may still be able to bring claims under the ADA for retaliation occurring post-employment.
- Retirees may be able to claim that their right to a post-employment benefit was vested and the employer could not change it.