Vigilant Blog

News, trends and analysis in employment law, HR, safety & workers' comp

May 19, 2022

ADA claims don’t require long-term limitations

DisabilityLeave Laws 

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) doesn’t require an employee to have long-term medical issues in order to establish a disability. The employee in this case was a newly hired HR generalist who was approved for an eight-week leave of absence following a bone biopsy surgery. As her scheduled return-to-work date of June 20, 2018, approached, her doctor said she was still unable to work and they would discuss her return date at her next appointment on July 10, 2018. Her employer then terminated her employment, saying her job was being eliminated. She sued for disability discrimination under the ADA, claiming that her employer should have extended her leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation for the short period of additional time needed to recover from the surgery. The employer defended its actions by asserting that the HR generalist’s condition wasn’t a disability because it lasted less than six months.

The ADA protects workers who have a medical condition that “substantially limits” a “major life activity.” The Ninth Circuit noted that Congress significantly revised the ADA in 2008 to direct the courts to liberally interpret what it means to be substantially limited in a major life activity. In rejecting a six-month standard, the court didn’t establish any minimum period other than to state that the limitations can be short-term and still be covered (Shields v. Credit One Bank, N.A. 9th Cir, May 2022).

Tips: If the six-month standard sounds familiar, it’s because it’s relevant to the category of being “regarded as” having a disability. The ADA protects not only individuals who actually have a disability, but also those who have a record of a disability or are perceived as having a disability (even if the perceived condition isn’t substantially limiting). However, if the perceived condition is both transient (lasting six months or less) and minor, then no protections exist. This particular employee’s medical limitations were serious enough that she alleged she had an actual disability, and there’s nothing in the statute that places a time frame on actual disabilities. Analyzing the appropriate course of action under the ADA is a highly fact-specific task. Your Vigilant Law Group employment attorney can help walk you through any situation you may be facing. You may also want to check out the following Legal Guides, ADA: Definition of Disability, ADA: Regarded As a Disability, and ADA: Reasonable Accommodations and the Interactive Process.

This website presents general information in nontechnical language. This information is not legal advice. Before applying this information to a specific management decision, consult legal counsel.