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Occupational Injuries and the Americans with Disabilities Act

Introduction

In employment law, there are two distinct bodies of law that address occupational injuries and disabilities: state workers’ compensation laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). State workers’ compensation laws permit an employee to receive wage replacement and medical benefits after suffering an on-the-job injury. While in the employment context, the ADA protects an employee from discrimination and retaliation in the workplace because of a disclosed disability. These two bodies of law are separate and distinct, but there are certain circumstances in which an on-the-job injury can also form the basis of an ADA discrimination lawsuit.

When can an occupational injury be a “disability” within the meaning of the ADA?

The ADA defines “disability” as: (1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity; (2) a record of such an impairment; or (3) being regarded as having such an impairment. Occupational injuries may not be severe enough to substantially limit a major life activity, or they may only be temporary, non-chronic, and have little or no long-term impact. Thus, an on-the-job injury is not automatically a “disability” as defined by the ADA.

However, if an on-the-job injury results in a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, then the individual’s injury may be the basis of an ADA claim. Notwithstanding the same, an on-the-job injury cannot be the basis of an ADA claim under the “record of” portion of the ADA definition of disability unless the individual had or has a history of, or has been misclassified as having, a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.

Finally, there are several instances in which an on-the-job injury can actually be the basis of an ADA lawsuit under the “regarded as” portion of the ADA disability definition. An occupational injury can be a disability under the “regarded as” portion of the ADA definition if the individual (1) has an impairment that does not substantially limit a major life activity but is treated by an employer as if it were substantially limiting; (2) has an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity because of the attitude of others towards the impairment; or (3) has no impairment but is treated as having a substantially limiting impairment.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) released a guide addressing some questions about the connectedness of workers’ compensation laws and the ADA. In the guidance, the EEOC provided three (3) examples for when an occupational injury may meet the definition of “disability” under the “regarded as” portion of the ADA:

Example A: An employee has an occupational injury that has resulted in a temporary back impairment that does not substantially limit a major life activity. However, the employer views her as not being able to lift more than a few pounds and refuses to return her to her position. The employer regards her as having an impairment that substantially limits the major life activity of lifting. The employee likely has a disability as defined by the ADA.

Example B: An employer refuses to allow an employee whose occupational injury results in a facial disfigurement to return to his position because the employer fears negative reactions by co-workers or customers. The employer regards him as having an impairment that substantially limits the major life activities of interacting with others and working. The employee likely has a disability as defined by the ADA.

Example C: An employee is fully recovered from an occupational injury that resulted in a temporary back impairment. The employer fires the employee because it believes that, if he returns to his heavy labor job, he will severely injure his back and be totally incapacitated. The employer regards the employee as having an impairment that disqualifies him from a class of jobs (heavy labor) and therefore as substantially limited in the major life activity of working. The employee likely has a disability as defined by the ADA.

If you feel your employment rights have been violated under the ADA or pursuant to Alabama’s workers’ compensation law, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment, please contact the experienced Birmingham employment law attorneys at Wrady Michel & King. You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 319-9724. We are here to serve you.