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ADA: Medical restrictions matter, not duration

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

For many years, employers felt safe denying accommodations for allegedly disabled employees when it was clear that their medical conditions were temporary and not permanent. That’s no longer the best approach.

Focus on whether the employee’s present restrictions substantially limit a major life activity, not on how long the impairment will continue.

Recent case: Michael injured his back while working in the kitchen of the Movie Tavern restaurant in Philadelphia. His doctors initially said he shouldn’t lift more than 10 pounds. He received workers’ compensation benefits until he was cleared for work without restrictions.

Then he hurt his back again. Shortly after his benefits were reinstated, the restaurant fired him, allegedly for discriminating against His­­­panic workers.

Michael sued, alleging ADA violations. He claimed that the discrimination charges were just an excuse to discriminate against him, either for being disabled or in retaliation for receiving workers’ comp or both.

Movie Tavern argued that because his back problems were transient, he wasn’t disabled under the ADA. After all, it reasoned, Michael was capable of light-duty work and was cleared to return to his regular job before injuring himself again.

The court disagreed. It noted that when the ADA was amended, the EEOC revised its regulations to focus on impairment rather than how long those impairments last. Michael’s doctors restricted him from performing work that required him to bend over, twist his torso or lift any weight over 10 pounds. That, the court said, could be a substantial impairment. It let Michael’s case proceed. (Can­­field v. Movie Tavern, No. 13-cv-03484, ED PA, 2013)

Final note: As a practical matter, you should consider as disabled and entitled to reasonable accommodations all employees deemed eligible for workers’ compensation benefits.

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