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Are Temporary Disabilities Protected Under the Americans with Disabilities Act?

The ADA makes it unlawful for covered employers to "discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability." The Act prohibits covered employers from discharging qualified employees because they are disabled. But what if you are in an accident which renders you disabled for a period of just 7 months; in other words, your are just temporarily disabled. Does the ADA protect you?

Before 2008, the answer was a definite no. But in September 2008, Congress broadened the definition of "disability" by enacting the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) In response to a series of Supreme Court decisions that Congress believed improperly restricted the scope of the ADA, it passed legislation with the stated purpose of "reinstating a broad scope of protection to be available under the ADA." Congress sought to override a case in which the Supreme Court had adopted a strict construction of the term "disability" and suggested that a temporary impairment could not qualify as a disability under the Act. Congress believed that the decision set an "inappropriately high level of limitation necessary to obtain coverage under the ADA."

A recent U.S. Court of Appeals case, Summers v. Altarum Institute, gave us some guidance as to how to interpret the ADAAA. Summers, a senior analyst for a government contractor, requested permission to work remotely while he healed from an accident in 2011 that left him incapacitated, with fractures in both legs. "Doctors forbade Summers from putting any weight on his left leg for six weeks and estimated that he would not be able to walk normally for seven months at the earliest." Company policy authorized employees to work remotely if the client approved.

While the employer's short-term disability provider granted Summers benefits, the company refused to engage him in negotiations about working from home. Instead effective December 1, 2011, it fired him "in order to place another analyst in his role". Summers filed an ADA discrimination claim for his discharge. The lower court ruled against him because his disability was temporary.

The Court of Appeals reversed the lower court, and held that the expanded definition of a disability under the ADAAA meant that Summers should prevail. "If, as the EEOC has concluded, a person who cannot lift more than twenty pounds for 'several months' is sufficiently impaired to be disabled within the meaning of the amended Act, then surely a person whose broken legs and injured tendons render him completely immobile for more than seven months is also disabled."

This marks a major change in the law protecting those with disabilities. Even if your disability will last less than a year, the ADA, as amended by Congress, protects you from being fired if reasonable accommodations are available to your employer.

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