January 1998

Workplace Labor Update - Temporary Disability Not Covered by ADA – January 1998

3 min

The federal court of appeals for Maryland and Virginia recently held that a computer consultant who injured his back on the job did not qualify as an individual with a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act because the ADA was not intended to cover temporary incapacity. Halperin v. Abacus Technology Corp., 128 F.3d 191 (4th Cir. 1997).

The plaintiff, Jay Halperin, began working for Abacus Technology Corp., a research and consulting firm, in March 1992. On May 31, 1994, he injured his lower back while attempting to lift a computer at work. His doctor diagnosed his condition as a lumbar strain and recommended physical therapy and a work restriction that he refrain from lifting more than 20 pounds. Initially, Halperin missed only six days of work in the five months after the injury. Later, he missed an additional two months of work, and in the process used up all of his vacation and sick leave, because he was experiencing difficulties walking, sitting, standing, and lifting and could not perform other physical requirements of his job.

Abacus experienced a "downturn in business" during Halperin’s absence and, when Halperin sought to return to work, Abacus terminated him in part due to the lack of work, and in part because of the uncertainty surrounding when he would be ready to return to work without restrictions. Abacus later hired another consultant, a younger woman, to perform similar work at a lower rate of pay.

Halperin filed suit, claiming that Abacus discriminated against him on the basis of a disability in violation of the ADA. Examining the evidence of Halperin’s alleged incapacitation and the purpose underlying the ADA, the Fourth Circuit held that Halperin was not disabled within the meaning of the ADA because his impairment did not significantly limit his ability to work. First, the court held that a person is not significantly limited by an impairment that is "only transitory." As evidence supporting the limited expected duration of Halperin’s injury, the court pointed to an opinion by the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission that found that Halperin was only "temporarily disabled." The court also noted that Halperin was out of work for only two months due to his injury. The court found that the record evidence strongly suggested that Halperin’s injury was only temporary and, therefore, was not substantially limiting.

As further support for its conclusion that Halperin was not substantially limited in his ability to work, the court found that the twenty-pound work restriction was not considerably different than an average person’s abilities and therefore did not constitute a significant restriction of the major life activity of working. Furthermore, the court observed that the lifting restriction did not significantly limit Halperin’s ability to "perform a wide range of jobs," as required to meet the definition of disabled under the ADA. In fact, the court noted, Halperin could, and did, find comparable employment with a different employer after his termination from Abacus—demonstrating that he was not limited in his ability to work.

Analyzing the ADA, the Fourth Circuit found that the law was not designed to protect individuals from "all adverse effects of ill-health and misfortune." Rather, the court observed, the ADA was designed to prevent truly disabled and genuinely qualified individuals from discrimination wrought by commonly-held stereotypes about the insurmountability of their handicaps. Extending the protection of the ADA to cover transitory ailments, such as Halperin’s, would unjustifiably expand the ADA.

In holding that the ADA was not designed to protect the public from the adverse effects of transitory ill-health and misfortune, the Fourth Circuit found that the ADA does not cover individuals with broken bones, sprained joints, sore muscles, infectious diseases, or other ailments that temporarily limit an individual’s ability to work. This decision benefits employers by distinguishing qualifying disabilities under the ADA from ailments which cause a mere temporary incapacitation.