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An Impairment Need Not Be Permanent Or Long-Term To Qualify As An ADA Disability
In April 2018, Karen Shields, an employee at Credit One Bank in Nevada underwent intensive surgery of her right shoulder and arm. This surgery required a three-day hospitalization and an extended recovery period. For several months Shields was unable to fully use her right arm, shoulder, and hand, and could not lift, pull, push, type, write, tie her shoes, or use a hair dryer.
Shield’s job duties required her to use her hands to feel and handle objects, reach with her hands and arms, and occasionally lift and move up to two pounds. Because of her surgery, she was unable to fulfill these requirements.
Shields requested a reasonable accommodation from Credit One under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Her doctor’s note stated that her medical condition substantially limited her major life activities of “sleeping, lifting, writing, pushing, pulling [and] manual tasks.” She received an eight-week unpaid leave as an accommodation. At the end of the eight weeks, Shields was still unable to work and submitted another doctor’s note to request additional leave.
Shortly thereafter, Credit One told Shields her position was being eliminated and she was being terminated. Shields promptly filed a lawsuit seeking damages and back pay. The trial court dismissed the case, and Shields filed an appeal.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit examined the reasons for the original dismissal. The trial court held that Shields had failed to establish that she had a disability because she could not show that she had an “impairment,” nor prove a substantial limitation arising from that impairment. The trial court found that Shields did not have a substantial limitation because she couldn’t show “any permanent or long term effects for her impairment.”
The ADA defines “disability” as an impairment that fulfills any of the following three criteria: “(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment.”
Shields had attempted to prove the first of the three options: that she had a physical impairment that substantially limited one or more major life activities. The Ninth Circuit overturned the trial court and held that Shields did provide enough facts to establish that she had a disability.
The Ninth Circuit broke down the definition of disability into three elements: “ a physical or mental impairment  that substantially limits  one or more major life activities.” The original doctor’s note that Shield submitted — which detailed her inability to lift, pull, push, type, write, tie her shoes, or use a hair dryer — adequately proved that she had a physical impairment.
Citing the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC’s) regulations, the Ninth Circuit held that even a temporary injury like Shields’, that impedes the performance of major life activities for several months, is sufficiently severe to qualify as “substantially limiting.”
The Ninth Circuit held that the trial court placed too much emphasis on the duration or permanency of Shields’ injury in assessing whether she had a disability. The duration of an impairment is only one factor to consider when determining whether an impairment is substantially limiting. There is no categorical rule excluding short-term impairments, which may be covered if they are sufficiently severe.
In sum, the Ninth Circuit held that, because Shields adequately described her injuries and inability to perform certain tasks, she had alleged enough facts to prove she had a disability.
Shields v. Credit One Bank, N.A., (9th Cir. 2022) 32 F.4th 1218.
Employers should err on the side of caution when considering whether an employee has a disability requiring an interactive process and a reasonable accommodation. If an employee will be unable to perform essential job functions for even a short amount of time, a careful analysis must occur. Although this case was decided under the ADA, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act’s anti-disability discrimination provisions apply to some disabilities that are temporary. Also, under California’s law, a person is disabled if their impairment makes the performance of major life activities difficult; California does not use the ADA’s higher “substantially limits” standard.