What the ADA Does (and Doesn’t) Require of Employers When It Comes to Fringe Benefits and Former Employees

As an employee or an employer, you undoubtedly understand that the totality of the “terms and conditions” of employment extends beyond just the basics like salary. Fringe benefits, especially things like health insurance coverage and retirement, can represent extremely important terms of employment. Discrimination related to fringe benefits potentially may entitle a worker to take legal action… but the viability of that worker’s lawsuit may depend on whether the discrimination occurred during or after the worker’s period of employment. If you have questions about discrimination and fringe benefits, make sure you’re getting the knowledgeable answers you need by talking to an experienced Atlanta disability discrimination lawyer.

A recent disability discrimination case originating in federal court in Florida is a reminder of the importance of this distinction between alleged discrimination that occurs during employment versus post-employment.

The worker, K.S., was a firefighter for a local government from 1999 to 2018. On Nov. 1, 2018, she took disability retirement at age 47 as a result of her Parkinson’s Disease.

When she started in 1999, retired employees with qualifying disabilities were entitled to free health insurance until age 65. In 2003, the duration of free health insurance changed to only 24 months, regardless of age. (This was a change of which K.S. was not aware.)

This change and the 2020 termination of her health insurance benefits led the firefighter to sue the city for disability discrimination in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Not a ‘Qualified Individual With a Disability’

Even though discrimination regarding fringe benefits (including health insurance coverage) can be the foundation of a viable disability discrimination case, the trial court dismissed the lawsuit and the appeals court upheld that dismissal. This employer’s success is a useful lesson regarding the extent of employers’ obligations to former employees with disabilities.

The basis for the employer’s win relates to the language Congress used in Title I of the ADA. That title says that, to be a “qualified individual with a disability,” a worker must be able to “perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.”

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals interpreted that language to cover only employees (“individual holds”) or employment applicants (“desires,”) thereby not covering former employees who do not “hold or desire to hold” any employment position with the employer. In other words, discrimination in the provision of postemployment fringe benefits cannot violate Title I of the ADA.

Because the 11th Circuit court’s decisions control federal cases in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, this ruling that “discrimination in the provision of post-employment fringe benefits cannot be a violation of Title I of the ADA” applies to you as a Georgia employer or employee.

If, however, a worker files a lawsuit that alleges a Title I violation based on post-employment fringe benefits in a federal court in any of several northeastern states (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont, Pennsylvania, or Delaware,) then that employer may face a greater challenge. The appellate courts whose rulings control in those states (the Second Circuit and Third Circuit) have expressly ruled that allegations of post-employment discrimination regarding fringe benefits are potentially viable bases for a successful Title I violation claim.

As this firefighter’s case demonstrates, ADA law is a complex area. If you have questions about disability discrimination, get in touch with the knowledgeable Atlanta disability discrimination attorneys at the law firm of Parks, Chesin & Walbert to get the reliable advice and powerful advocacy you need. Contact us through this website or at 404-873-8048 to schedule a consultation today.

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