In 2009, the ADA Amendments Act significantly lowered the burden for plaintiffs claiming protected disabled status under the Americans with Disabilities Act. ADAAA does not apply retroactively, and the first cases under the new definitions are being decided. Last month, the federal District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina illustrated how low this new threshold has been placed.
In Feldman v. Law Enforcement Associates Corp., one of the plaintiffs alleged that he was terminated after suffering a "warning" or mini-stroke that required two days hospitalization and two weeks recovery before he would have been available to return to work. The employer contended that this event did not constitute an ADA disability due to the short duration of the medical episode.
The district court disagreed, denying the employer's motion for summary judgment. Although the court noted that the mini-stroke was not part of an episodic or underlying chronic condition, it nevertheless qualified as a significant limitation of a major life activity. The court took to heart ADAAA's expressed intent to be interpreted as broadly as possible. In this case, even though the duration of the event was short, while it lasted, its effects on the plaintiff were significant.
If courts interpret the ADA to cover a two-week medical episode, there may be few conditions that fall outside of the statute's boundaries. It is likely that employers may cease even challenging plaintiffs' status as protected disabled individuals under the ADA. Instead, employers will need to show either that the plaintiff was not denied reasonable accommodation, or that the adverse decision was made for reasons other than the medical condition. Unfortunately in both cases, these questions will more likely be answered by a jury after trial rather than by a judge on summary judgment.