May 18, 2022
by Kara Cogswell

Ninth Circuit Agrees Temporary Impairments Can Be Disabilities Under ADA

A recent decision by the Ninth Circuit confirms that temporary medical conditions can qualify as disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The outcome in Shields vs. Credit One Bank N.A.  is consistent with recent rulings from several other federal courts of appeals finding that transitory impairments can trigger protections of the ADA.

The ADA definition of disability includes a “physical or mental or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” After the ADA was enacted in 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted this definition to require that the impairment have a “permanent or long-term impact.” See Sutton v. United Airlines, Inc., 527 U.S. 471, 487 (1999). Congress amended the ADA in 2008 with a specific stated purpose of rejecting the Supreme Court’s narrow interpretation of what qualified as a substantially limiting impairment.

The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 gave the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) authority to issue rules consistent with the amended legislation. Pursuant to this authority, EEOC issued an amended regulation in 2011 that revised the definition of “substantially limits” to add a subsection stating “[t]he effects of an impairment lasting or expected to last fewer than six months can be substantially limiting.” 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(1)(ix).

In the case of Shields vs. Credit One Bank, the plaintiff Shields had post-surgery limitations on the use of her right arm which precluded her from performing essential functions of her job as a human resources generalist. Credit One Bank provided Shields with a leave of absence but terminated her when she was not ready to return to work after two months.

Shields filed suit, alleging Credit One violated the ADA by terminating her rather than offering her a reasonable accommodation of extending her leave of absence. Credit One filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the ADA did not apply because Shields’ post-surgery limitations were not sufficiently “permanent or long-term” to qualify as a disability.

The trial court granted the bank’s motion. The trial court held that a claim of impairment requires a showing of long-term effects, citing 2010 EEOC regulations.  The Ninth Circuit held that the trial court erred in relying on the 2010 regulations, which were not yet updated to reflect the 2008 ADA amendments. The Ninth Circuit found Shields adequately alleged she suffered from a “disability” within the meaning of the ADA and allowed her lawsuit to proceed.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision in Shields v. Credit One provides a good reminder for employers that even a temporary injury or medical condition may be a disability under the ADA.  Requests for accommodation based on a transitory impairment should be given the same careful consideration as requests based on long-term impairments, including engaging in an interactive process to discuss whether reasonable accommodation is possible.

If you need help navigating a question of ADA coverage or other employment matter, please call me at 503-595-6113 or contact another experienced employment attorney with our firm.

Posted by Kara Cogswell.