The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) entitles employees to job protections when they suffer from disabilities. In 2008, Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA), which modified the ADA. The ADAAA and regulations adopted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) interpreting the law make clear the term “disability” should be interpreted broadly. Conditions that are minor and temporary (such as a cold or the flu) don’t count as disabilities under the ADA. A recent decision clarified, however, that a short-term illness or other temporary impairment may qualify as a disability if it is severe enough.
It’s Only Temporary
Karen Shields was an HR department employee at Credit One Bank. Her job title was “HR Generalist I,” and the official job description listed physical requirements that were mandatory to perform the role successfully, including the ability to “use hands to finger, handle, [and] feel,” to “reach with hands and arms,” and, occasionally, to “lift and/or move up to 2 pounds.” The job description also stated, however, Credit One would provide reasonable accommodations so that a disabled individual could perform the position’s essential functions.
In January 2018, Shields suspected she had bone cancer and scheduled a bone biopsy surgery on April 20, 2018. The surgery was a significant procedure requiring a three-day hospitalization. The surgeon made a “10-centimeter skin incision” and created a window “into the bone measuring one centimeter in width by two centimeters in length.”
Ultimately, Shields didn’t have cancer. Nevertheless, she was unable to return to work for several months because she couldn’t fully use her right arm, shoulder, and hand to perform such tasks as lifting, pulling, pushing, typing, writing, tying her shoes, or using a hair dryer.
Shields’ surgeon completed a copy of Credit One’s “ADA Employee Accommodation Medical Certification Form” stating the patient would be unable to perform her essential job functions, with or without an accommodation, for two months. The surgeon also identified major life activities that were substantially limited by her post-surgical complications including sleeping, lifting, writing, pushing, and pulling.
Credit One approved an unpaid eight-week medical leave for Shields. As her return date approached, however, she still had the limitations. Her medical provider again prepared a note stating the patient couldn’t currently return to work but that her expected return-to-work date would be discussed at an upcoming medical appointment.
Shortly after receiving the note, Credit One called Shields and asked her to come into the office to discuss her healthcare premium. When she reported to the office, however, the bank advised her that her position was being eliminated and that she was therefore being terminated. Her healthcare coverage was consequently terminated about a week later.
Shields ultimately filed a lawsuit alleging Credit One had a continuing duty under the ADA to extend her medical leave of absence until she was able to return to work but instead unlawfully terminated her.
The federal district court held in Credit One’s favor, dismissing Shields’ lawsuit because she didn’t plead a true disability as defined by the ADA:
- She failed to allege enough facts to establish she had an “impairment”; and
- Even if she had alleged an impairment, she had failed to establish a substantial limitation arising from it, i.e., she hadn’t alleged facts to show plausible permanent or long-term effects.
Shields then appealed the decision to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers California).
Temporary But Severe
Under the ADA, a disability is defined as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Notably, the Act makes no reference to how long the “substantial limit” might last. The EEOC regulations interpreting the ADA clarify “the effects of an impairment lasting or expected to last fewer than six months can be substantially limiting.”
More to the point, the formal guidance accompanying the amended EEOC regulations specifically says a temporary impairment that impedes the performance of a major life activity and lasts for several months is “sufficiently severe” to qualify as “substantially limiting.” Based on that guidance, the 9th Circuit concluded the lower court was wrong when it ruled categorically that the short-term nature of Shields’ limitations meant she couldn’t show she suffered from a disability. It stated:
Because the ADA and its implementing EEOC regulations make clear that the actual-impairment prong of the definition of “disability” in § 3(1)(A) of the ADA is not subject to any categorical temporal limitation, the district court committed legal error in holding, based on the pre ADAAA regulations, that a claim of such an actual “impairment” requires a showing of long-term effects.
Finally, the 9th Circuit held that based on Shields’ allegations about her impairment, she had sufficiently pleaded a disability under the correct standard. Namely, because of her biopsy surgery, she had a physical impairment that substantially limited a major life activity. Accordingly, the appellate court reversed the district court’s holding. Karen Shields v. Credit One Bank, N.A.; Credit One Financial; Sherman Financial Group, LLC (9th Circuit Court of Appeals, 5/6/22).
Employers must exercise caution and avoid reflexively dismissing an employee’s accommodation request simply because the impairment is temporary. Turn your attention toward the nature of the employee’s requested accommodation and less toward whether the individual’s impairment technically qualifies as a disability. This is true not only because of the outcome in Shields but also because state disability laws may require employers to accommodate short-term disabilities separate and apart from what is required by the ADA under federal law.