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ADA-Covered Disability Does Not Need to be Long Term

    Client Alerts
  • May 13, 2022

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects individuals with substantial impairment of a major life activity. In the past, this definition was interpreted by federal courts to limit ADA coverage to persons with chronic medical conditions. However, as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reminded employers last week, statutory changes to the ADA have removed any assumption about the long-term nature of the impairment.

In Shields v. Credit One Bank, N.A., the plaintiff underwent biopsy surgery that resulted in her inability to work for two months. At the expiration of this time period, she still was unable to return and requested an extension to the leave. She alleged that her employer denied this request, terminating her in violation of the ADA’s reasonable accommodation requirement. The district court dismissed the lawsuit, concluding that the plaintiff had not pled any long-term impairment in her complaint.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed, remanding the suit for additional proceedings. The court noted that in 2008, Congress amended the ADA to broaden the definition of protected disabled individuals. The duration of the medical condition is only one factor used in determining whether it substantially limits a major life activity. In this situation, the plaintiff’s inability to perform major life tasks met this definition, even if that impairment only lasted two months.

Employers should not rely on the transitory nature of an employee’s medical condition to serve as a bar to claims of disability discrimination. Even if the employee is not eligible for FMLA leave, the ADA may cover such conditions, even if the employee recovers within a relatively short period of time.