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Bryant Whitten, LLP

Court ruling expands scope of disability

On Jan. 23, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that in some cases a temporary impairment may be deemed a "disability" under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008. In so doing, it stated that the impairment may be covered under the ADA Amendments Act if the injury was severe enough to substantially limit major life functions or activities.

The appellate court reversed a lower court decision involving a worker who was injured while commuting to work and was unable to walk for several months. After he was fired, he filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against his employer. His job allowed him to work remotely from home but also required some work-related travel. He had only been employed by the company for a few months before he became injured, and this fact may have impact the court's decision. The anticipated recovery time may have also impacted the court's original ruling on this case.

The ADA Amendments Act, as well as the original ADA, is designed to protect workers with disabilities from wrongful termination as well as from being discriminated against in the workplace. The stated purpose of the 2008 amendments is to ensure that that the definition of the term "disability" is to be construed broadly and in favor of the individual. In this case, the terminated worker's employer argued that since the impairment to the man's ability to walk was merely temporary, it did not rise to the level of being a "disability" even taking into account the expanded definition.

The ruling is apparently the first federal appellate court decision to interpret the broader definition of "disability" to include a temporary impairment. In its opinion, the court noted that in passing the amendments, Congress had expressly overturned a previous Supreme Court decision that had narrowly construed the term.

Source: Bloomberg, "Temporary Impairment May Be ‘Disability' Under Amended ADA, Fourth Circuit Rules", Kevin P. McGowan, January 27, 2014

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