The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal appellate court covering North Carolina, among other states, recently ruled that a temporary impairment may be a covered disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In Summers v. Altarum Inst., Corp, the court held that such a temporary impairment may be a disability if it is “sufficiently severe.” This is a departure from previous cases that held temporary impairments could not qualify as ADA covered disabilities.
The ADA was amended in 2008 by the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA), which expanded the definition of disability. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is the first court since the enactment of ADAAA to apply the expanded definition of disability to include temporary impairments. Before the ADAAA, employers could rely on a 2002 United States Supreme Court opinion, Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184, in which the court said a temporary impairment could not qualify as a disability under the ADA. Congress overrode the Toyota decision when it enacted the ADAAA.
In this case, the appellate court reversed the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, which had held that the plaintiff, Carl Summers, did not have an ADA covered disability and therefore granted his employer’s Motion to Dismiss his case. Mr. Summers worked as an analyst for the Altarum Institute, a government contractor. His job required him to travel to the offices of the company’s client, the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE). Altarum’s policies allowed employees to work remotely if the client approved. DCoE preferred contractors to work on-site during business hours but allowed them to work remotely from home when “putting in extra time on [a] project.”
The impairment at issue in the case was serious, although temporary. Mr. Summers suffered several leg injuries after a fall while exiting a commuter train, which included a fractured left leg and torn left meniscus tendon and a fractured right ankle and ruptured quadriceps-patellar tendon in his right leg. The doctors forbade Mr. Summers from putting any weight on his left leg for six weeks and estimated he would not walk normally for at least seven months. During his hospitalization, Mr. Summers asked Altarum for permission to work from home as he recovered. A company human resources representative agreed to discuss “accommodations that would allow Summers to return to work,” but suggested that Summers “take short-term disability and focus on getting well again.” Summers sent emails to his supervisors at Altarum and DCoE about returning to work, suggesting a plan in which he would take short-term disability for a few weeks, then start working remotely part-time, and then increase his hours gradually until he was full-time again. Altarum never followed up on these requests and never suggested any alternative reasonable accommodations to Summers. Instead, the company terminated his employment, explaining that it needed to place another analyst in his role at DCoE. Mr. Summers sued the company for failure to accommodate his disability and discriminating against him by terminating him for being disabled. Although the district court dismissed both claims, Mr. Summers only appealed the issue of whether or not Altarum illegally terminated him because of a disability.
Altarum, argued that a temporary impairment is not a disability under the ADA, even in light of the ADAAA and the expanded definition of disability. The court disagreed, saying, “the absence of appellate precedent presents no difficulty in this case: Summers has unquestionably alleged a 'disability' under the ADAAA sufficiently severe to survive a [Motion to Dismiss].” In addition to focusing on the ADAAA’s effect on the precedent set by the Toyota case, the court discussed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) regulations that implemented the ADAAA. The appendix to the EEOC's regulations says, “duration of an impairment is one factor that is relevant to determining whether the impairment substantially limits a major life activity,” and although “impairments that last only for a short period of time are typically not covered,” such impairments “may be covered 'if sufficiently severe.’” Given the extensive injuries to his legs and the expected recovery time, the court decided “Summers has unquestionably alleged a ‘disability’ under the ADAAA.” The district court dismissal of the case was reversed, and it was sent back to the district court for further proceedings.
Based on this case, employers can not assume that a temporary condition is not a disability. Instead, employers should carefully apply an individualized analysis to each situation. Moreover, although the issue was not part of the appellate opinion, the case is a good reminder of the need to engage in an interactive process with employees who request disability accommodations.