The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has evolved over the years. For example, in Sep- tember 2008, Congress significantly broadened the definition of “disability” by enacting the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA). A recent case, Summers v. Altarum Institute, demonstrates the impact of this important change.
The plaintiff began working for the Altarum Institute, a government contractor, in July 2011. His job required travel to the offices of Altarum’s client, the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE). Altarum policy authorized employees to work remotely if the client approved. The DCoE preferred contractors to work on-site during business hours, but it permitted them to work remotely when putting in extra time.
The plaintiff injured himself in October while exiting a commuter train on his way to the DCoE. He sustained serious injuries to both legs, and doctors prohibited him from putting any weight on the legs for six weeks. They further estimated that he wouldn’t be able to walk nor- mally for seven months at the earliest.
While hospitalized, the plaintiff contacted Altarum about obtaining short-term disability benefits and working from home as he recovered. Altarum never followed up with him. Further, the company neither suggested any rea- sonable alternative accommodation nor engaged in any interactive process with the plaintiff. Instead, on Nov. 30, Altarum terminated him effective Dec. 1, 2011.
District court denial
The plaintiff filed suit in September 2012, alleging ADA violations. Specifically, he alleged that Altarum had dis- criminated against him by terminating his employment on account of his disability, and by failing to accommodate his disability.
Altarum responded by filing a motion to dismiss the com- plaint, arguing that the plaintiff failed to state a valid cause of action. The district court agreed with the employer, finding that the plaintiff wasn’t “disabled” because a “tem- porary condition” isn’t covered by the ADA.
The lower court further noted that the plaintiff’s “fail- ure to accommodate” claim was unsuccessful because he didn’t allege that he’d requested a reasonable accommo- dation. And the plaintiff’s proposal to work temporarily from home was unreasonable, the district court reasoned, because it sought to eliminate a significant function of the job. The plaintiff appealed.
On that appeal, the plaintiff challenged only the district court’s dismissal of his wrongful-discharge claim. As a threshold matter, plaintiffs alleging an ADA violation must show that they’re disabled. Under the law, a “dis- ability” is either:
- A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,
- A record of such an impairment, or
- Being regarded as having such an impairment.
After the enactment of the ADAAA, an impairment lasting or expected to last fewer than six months could be substan- tially limiting for the purposes of proving a disability. This was especially relevant to Summers, because the plaintiff argued that his injured legs (the impairment) substantially limited his ability to walk (the major life activity).
In overturning the lower court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit noted that “[the plaintiff] has unquestionably alleged a ‘disability’ under the ADAAA.” The court concluded that the text and purpose of the ADAAA, as well as its implementing regulations, clearly provide that impairments such as those suffered by the plaintiff can constitute a disability — particularly for the purposes of surviving a motion to dismiss.
Engagement is critical
Since the passage of the ADAAA, many more plaintiffs have been able to successfully overcome the hurdle of whether or not they’re disabled. For employers, it’s now critical to engage in an interactive process with any employee who makes an accommodation request — even an unreasonable one.