Can a temporary condition be a protected disability under FEHA?

Employers often argue that because a worker’s health condition is temporary and passing, the condition can’t possibly be considered a disability under California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The assume, relying mostly on intuition, that the concept of disability necessarily entails some kind of permanent impairment.

The courts, however, disagree with this argument. In Diaz v. Federal Express Corp.(2005) the court specifically discussed the issue of temporary physical and mental conditions. In that case, Federal Express argued that because the Claimant severe anxiety attacks were only temporary and lasted just over one year, that condition couldn’t possibly fall within the protection of FEHA. The federal court rejected that argument. The court noted that the reading of the law itself suggests that a temporary condition might be a protected disability, entitling an employee to reasonable accommodations. The statute defines a disabled person as one regarded as having or having had a condition that makes achievement of a major life activity difficult, or the one that has not present disabling effect, but that may become a disability in the future.
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It is unclear what weight, if any, should be give to how long a condition lasts in determining its disabling effect as the relevant statute Cal. Gov. Code section 12926.1(c) is noticeable silent on that issue. Thus, one way to interpret the law is to treat the duration of the condition as only mildly relevant in simply showing whether how serious the condition is, as one might argue that part of being “serious” is having a lasting effect on a personal physical or mental health.

On the other hand, the courts commonly find certain very short-term conditions as qualifying disabilities. A classic examples of this is a heart attack. It’s a matter of common knowledge, of course, that even though a heart attack itself only lasts a few moments, the events and conditions that lead up to the attack and follow the attack would suggest that the person suffers from one or more serious health conditions that would limit his/her ability to work.

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