This past week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held in Summers v. Altarum Institute that a temporary impairment caused by an injury may be a covered disability under the 2008 Amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADAAA”) if the impairment is sufficiently severe to substantially limit a major life activity. This ruling is a marked departure from previous case law which said that temporary conditions, even those lasting up to a year, did not fall within the purview of the ADA.
The employee at issue in the case had fallen getting off of a train, seriously injuring both of his legs. Without surgery, pain medication, and physical therapy, his doctors opined that it would likely be a year before he would be able to walk normally, and with that treatment, it would likely be seven months. The employee requested that he be permitted to work remotely until he was able to walk, but the employer instead encouraged him to take short term disability and then later decided to terminate his employment. The employee sued, alleging his discharge was because of a covered disability.
The Fourth Circuit, in reversing the district court’s dismissal of the claim, said the text and legislative history of the ADAAA show that Congress intended the Act’s definition of disability to “be construed in favor of broad coverage” to the “maximum extent permitted by its terms.” The Court further gave a nod to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s final regulations implementing the ADAAA where they provide that “effects lasting or expected to last fewer than six months can be substantially limiting” for purposes of proving an actual disability.
The Court held that although the duration of the impairment is one factor to be considered, the severity of the impairment was also important. The more severe the impairment, the shorter the duration needed for the impairment to substantially limit a major life activity. The Court therefore reasoned the employee was substantially limited in the major life activity of walking, even though he would eventually be able to walk again, and that he had “unquestionably alleged a ‘disability’ under the ADAAA sufficiently plausible to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion.”
Notably, the Fourth Circuit is the first federal appeals court to apply the ADAAA’s expanded definition of disability to include temporary impairments. The ruling confirms that under this expanded definition, the question of whether a disability exists is not going to be a big hurdle for a plaintiff in these cases. Also notable is that the Court did not address the employer’s decision not to accommodate the employee’s request to work from home because the employee did not raise the reasonable accommodation issue on appeal. Nevertheless, the decision raises the importance of the reasonable accommodation dialogue over and above the question of a covered disability in the post-ADAAA era. Employers should remember that questions under the ADAAA need to be looked at on a case by case basis, and generally involve risk.