Temporary Impairments May Be Covered Under the Expanded ADA

By on March 7, 2014

In late January 2014, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Summers v. Altarum Inst. Corp., 740 F.3d 325 (4th Cir. 2014), that a sufficiently severe temporary impairment may be a covered disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (the “ADA” or the Act”).

In enacting the ADA Amendment Act of 2008 (ADAAA), Congress broadened the ADA’s definition of “disability” after a series of Supreme Court decisions that Congress felt had interpreted the ADA too narrowly.  The Fourth Circuit’s ruling in Summers is significant because it represents the first time that an appellate court has applied the ADAAA’s expanded definition of “disability.”

In Summers, the plaintiff, Carl Summers was employed as an analyst for Altarum, which was a government contractor.  His job required him to work at Altarum’s client’s sites, which in this case was the Department of Energy.  The DoE had a policy allowing employees to work remotely only when putting in extra time for a project.  While traveling for work one day, Summers suffered severe injuries to his legs.  Summers’s physician instructed Summers not to put weight on his legs for six weeks.  Summers was also told that he would be unable to walk for seven months, and possibly not for up to a year.

Summers discussed with Altarum’s human resources representative his need for an accommodation whereby he would work from home at first, then part time, and gradually return to work full-time.  Though Altarum’s human resources representative provided information on short-term disability, Altarum did not grant Summers’s request for an accommodation or engage in an interactive process regarding the same.  Instead, Altarum terminated Summers and placed another analyst in his stead.

Summers filed a complaint against Altarum in the Eastern District of Virginia pursuant to the ADA claiming that Altarum failed to provide him a reasonable accommodation and terminated him because of his disability.  Summers alleged in his complaint that his impairment “substantially limited” his ability to engage in one of life’s major activities, namely walking.

The district court ruled that Summers’s complaint failed to state a claim because he failed to allege that he was “disabled” under the Act.  In so doing, the district court ruled that though the impairment was severe, it was expected to heal within a year and that temporary impairments were not considered disabilities.  The district court also stated that because Summers could use a wheelchair, if necessary, he was not substantially limited in his ability to walk.

The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision and found that the lower court erred by dismissing Summers’s complaint based on pre-ADAAA cases and failing to apply the proper ADA analysis.  The ADAAA prohibited the use of ameliorative effects of accommodations in determining whether an individual was disabled.  Thus, taking a wheelchair into account in determining whether Summers was disabled would render the ADA meaningless.

The appellate court stated that “[u]nder the ADAAA and its implementing regulations, an impairment is not categorically excluded from being a disability simply because it is temporary.”  The Court found that because Summers alleged that he suffered a severe injury that prevented him from walking for at least seven months, he had stated a sufficient claim that his impairment “substantially limited” his ability to walk.  The Court then remanded the case back to the district court for further consideration consistent with the Fourth Circuit’s ruling.

The Takeaway:  Employers should not assume that a temporary injury means that an employee is not covered by the ADA.  Instead, when an employee requests a reasonable accommodation, do not be dismissive. Engage in the interactive process with the employee to determine what reasonable accommodation can be provided.  In short, for purposes of your analysis, assume that the individual is disabled.

It is true that the ADA has become a more powerful weapon for employees; however, in order to be a qualified individual with a disability, an employee must be able to perform the essential functions of his or her job.

ADA issues are becoming increasingly complex.  When in doubt, consult a lawyer skilled in ADA matters.