Why it matters: In the first decision from a federal appellate court interpreting the amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) expanding the definition of “disability,” the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that “a sufficiently severe temporary impairment may constitute a disability.” Reversing dismissal of a plaintiff’s ADA suit, the Court took an extremely broad reading of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) to find that an employee who couldn’t walk for at least seven months due to a serious leg injury was disabled under the Act. The Court declined to set a hard-and-fast rule about how severe and how long an impairment must last in order to trigger coverage under the statute, although it did cite regulations from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that severe impairments lasting less than six months could be considered substantially limiting. The implication for employers, even outside of the 4th Circuit: be prepared to respond to a request for accommodations from employees with temporary impairments.

Detailed Discussion

Just three months into his job as a senior analyst for Altarum Institute in Alexandria, Va., Carl Summers fell while exiting a commuter train on his way to work. Summers sustained serious injuries to both of his legs, necessitating multiple surgeries.

Treating doctors estimated that Summers would be unable to walk normally for at least seven months. Summers requested short-term disability benefits and accommodations to allow him to work from home while he recovered. Altarum did not engage in any interactive process with Summers and terminated him.

Summers filed a suit pursuant to the ADA alleging wrongful discharge on account of his disability. His impairment substantially limited his ability to walk, which qualified as a disability, he contended. A federal court judge dismissed the complaint, ruling that his “temporary condition” did not fall within the purview of the Act.

A three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit reversed.

Although noting it was the first appellate court to apply the ADAAA’s expanded definition of disability, the panel said it had “no difficulty” reaching its decision: “Summers has unquestionably alleged a ‘disability’ under the ADAAA.”

The 2008 ADAAA was a response to a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions lawmakers felt improperly restricted the scope of the ADA, the Court explained – including a 2002 decision that suggested a temporary impairment could not qualify as a disability under the statute.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission promulgated regulations under the ADAAA expressly providing that “effects of an impairment lasting or expected to last fewer than six months can be substantially limiting” for purposes of proving an actual disability. 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(1)(ix). Impairments that last only a short period of time are typically not covered, the EEOC added in an appendix, but they may be covered if the injury is sufficiently severe.

“Although short-term impairments qualify as disabilities only if they are ‘sufficiently severe,’ it seems clear that the serious impairment alleged by Summers is severe enough to qualify,” the Court wrote. As the EEOC regulations offer an example of an employee who cannot lift more than 20 pounds for several months as sufficiently impaired to be considered disabled within the Act, “then surely a person whose broken legs and injured tendons render him completely immobile for more than seven months is also disabled.”

The panel declined to accept Altarum’s contention that the EEOC regulations should not be accorded deference, finding them reasonable and advancing the ADAAA’s goal to broaden the coverage of the ADA. The employer’s floodgates argument was similarly unavailing, as the Court said that “[t]emporary disabilities require only temporary accommodations.” And the expansive definition of impairment includes not just temporary impairments caused by permanent conditions but those caused by injuries, like Summers’, the Court said.

“Under the ADAAA and its implementing regulations, an impairment is not categorically excluded from being a disability simply because it is temporary,” the panel concluded. “The impairment alleged by Summers falls comfortably within the amended Act’s expanded definition of disability.”

To read the decision in Summers v. Altarum Institute, click here.