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Are Employers Required to Accommodate a Temporary Disability?

A vexing question for employees who have been hurt, been in an accident, or who suffer from a temporary medical condition is whether their employer is required to provide a reasonable accommodation under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”). Employers and employees might assume that a temporary physical or mental disability does not need to be accommodated because the employee will get better at some point in time. However, courts have found that temporary disabilities which limit a major life activity must be accommodated similar to more permanent disabilities.

Unlike the Americans with Disability Act which has generally been interpreted to not include temporary disabilities, FEHA has been interpreted to include temporary disabilities given the California Legislature’s desire for a “broad” definition of disability. FEHA’s definition of a mental disability includes “being regarded or treated by the employer . . . as having, or having had, a mental or psychological disorder or condition that has no present disabling effect, but that may become a mental disability . . .”

In the case of Diaz v. Federal Express, a federal court allowed a case to move forward to a jury trial where an employee who suffered from depression and anxiety which lasted approximately seven months could be found to be disabled under FEHA. However, in an unreported case, Ellis v. City of Reedley, the district court found that an employee who suffered from migraine headaches must have a physical condition of “minimal duration . . . that is sufficient to constitute an actual limitation of a major life activity, as opposed to simply the need to take a day off.” The court expressed its fear that every case of the flu, cold, or the average stress of the workplace will be interpreted as a disability.

These decisions counsel that an employee who suffers from temporary medical condition needs to ensure that they (1) have sufficient medical documentation from a treating health care provider which corroborates the seriousness of the disability; (2) that the medical condition limits a major life activity; and (3) that the condition is more than transitory, intermittent, or passing.

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