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Employment Blog

What Now? Is a Temporary Impairment Now Considered a Disability?

Authored by Dean R. Dietrich
Posted on February 5, 2014
Filed under Employment

Employers have always been told that an employee that suffers a temporary impairment or injury does not qualify as a disabled employee under the Americans with Disabilities Act. For example, an employee falling out of a deer stand and breaking his leg would not be considered disabled for purposes of an accommodation requirement under the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act. Recent amendments to the ADA (known as the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008) and a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision may now suggest that a different answer applies.

In a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision issued on January 23, the Court stated that "a sufficiently severe temporary impairment may constitute a disability." This case involves an employee that travelled to the client of his employer while serving as an analyst conducting research and writing reports for that client. The employee suffered a serious injury when stepping off a commuter train on his way to work resulting in two surgeries on his leg. The employee was prohibited from putting any weight on his leg for six weeks, and it was estimated that it would be seven months before he could walk on his leg normally again. While the employee was hospitalized, the employee suggested that he receive short-term disability benefits and work from home during his recovery and even begin to work full-time from home until he was fully recovered. This request was never responded to by the employer nor did the employer suggest any type of alternative accommodation. Instead, the employer terminated the employee within a month after the injury occurred.

This case is important for two reasons. First, the employer did not engage in an interactive process with the employee regarding the potential for accommodation which may have tainted the Court's view of whether a disability existed (see recent blog about the interactive process). More importantly, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the 2008 Amendments to the ADA were designed to limit challenges to whether a disability existed and even noted that the EEOC regulations identified a disability to include such temporary things as a significant lifting restriction lasting several months. In other words, the Court of Appeals held that the temporary condition that this employee suffered from may be significant enough to warrant it being considered a disability even though it would only last for several months. The Court refused to uphold the summary judgment motion granted to the employer and instead referred the matter back to the trial court to determine if the employee suffered from a disability and whether the employer was required to provide an accommodation for that disability.

The ruling in this case highlights the constant need by employers to look at the facts and circumstances surrounding an employee's claim of disability and request for an accommodation. Employers cannot just say that it is a temporary condition and therefore does not constitute a disability under the applicable state or federal law. Employers will need to take more time to assess and understand the medical condition being experienced by the employee and then determine whether or not the condition would constitute a disability and require some sort of accommodation.