The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently ruled that even a temporary impairment caused by an injury can constitute a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA or Act). Summers v. Altarum Institute Corp., 2014 WL 243425 (4th Cir. Jan. 23, 2014).

Facts

In July 2011, Carl Summers began work as a senior analyst for the Altarum Institute, a government contractor with an office in Alexandria, Virginia. Summers’s job required him to travel to the Maryland offices of Altarum’s client, the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE). While Altarum policy authorized employees to work remotely if the client approved, DCoE preferred contractors to work on-site during business hours, but permitted them to work remotely from home when “putting in extra time on [a] project.”

In October 2011, Summers fell and injured himself while exiting a commuter train on his way to DCoE. With a heavy bag slung over his shoulder, he lost his footing and struck both knees against the train platform. Summers fractured his left leg, tore the meniscus tendon in his left knee, fractured his right ankle and ruptured the quadriceps-patellar tendon in his right leg.

Doctors forbade Summers from putting any weight on his left leg for six weeks and estimated that he would not be able to walk normally for seven months at the earliest. Without surgery, bed rest, pain medication, and physical therapy, Summers alleged that he would “likely” not have been able to walk for more than a year after the accident.

While hospitalized, Summers contacted an Altarum human resources representative about obtaining short-term disability benefits and working from home as he recovered. The Altarum 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 seeking advice about how to return to work and suggested he start by working remotely part-time until he was well enough to return to work full-time.

Altarum’s insurance provider granted Summers short-term disability benefits. But Altarum never followed up on Summers’s request to discuss how he might successfully return to work. On November 30, 2011, Altarum informed Summers “that Altarum was terminating [him] effective December 1, 2011, in order to place another analyst in his role at DCoE.”

The Underlying Lawsuit

In September 2012, Summers filed a complaint in the Eastern District of Virginia alleging two claims under the ADA. First, Summers asserted that Altarum discriminated against him by wrongfully discharging him on account of his disability. Second, Summers asserted that Altarum failed to accommodate his disability. The District Court granted Altarum’s motion and dismissed both claims without prejudice.

Summers filed a new lawsuit in December 2012 presenting essentially the same two claims. The District Court again granted Altarum’s motion to dismiss both claims, this time with prejudice. First, the Court dismissed the wrongful discharge claim on the ground that Summers had failed to allege that he was disabled. The Court reasoned that a “temporary condition, even up to a year, does not fall within the purview of the [A]ct” and so “the defendant’s [sic] not disabled.” The Court further suggested that Summers was not disabled because he could have worked with the assistance of a wheelchair. Second, the Court dismissed Summers’s failure-to-accommodate claim on the ground that Summers failed to allege that he had requested a reasonable accommodation. The Court reasoned that an employee bears the burden of requesting a reasonable accommodation, and that Summers’s proposal to work temporarily from home was unreasonable “because it sought to eliminate a significant function of the job.”

Summers appealed the dismissal of his wrongful discharge claim to the Fourth Circuit.

The Fourth Circuit’s Analysis

Under the ADA, a “disability” may take any of the following forms: (1) “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities” (the “actual-disability” prong); (2) “a record of such an impairment” (the “record-of” prong); or (3) “being regarded as having such an impairment” (the “regarded-as” prong). Summers alleged that he was disabled under the ADA’s actual-disability prong. Specifically, he asserted that his impairment “substantially limit[ed]” his ability to walk — which the ADA recognizes as one of the “major life activities” whose substantial limitation qualifies as a disability.

The Fourth Circuit noted that in September 2008, Congress broadened the definition of “disability” by enacting the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA or Amended Act). The Amended Act provides that the definition of disability “shall be construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals under this chapter, to the maximum extent permitted by [its] terms.” Further, Congress instructed that the term “substantially limits” be interpreted consistently with the liberalized purposes of the ADAAA.

Following passage of the ADAAA, the EEOC promulgated regulations clarifying that “[t]he term ‘substantially limits’ shall be construed broadly in favor of expansive coverage” and that the term is “not meant to be a demanding standard. The EEOC regulations also expressly provide 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 (emphasis added).

According to the appendix to the EEOC regulations, the “duration of an impairment is one factor that is relevant in determining whether the impairment substantially limits a major life activity.” Although “[i]mpairments that last only for a short period of time are typically not covered,” theymay be covered “if sufficiently severe.” The EEOC appendix further states: “[I]f an individual has a back impairment that results in a 20–pound lifting restriction that lasts for several months, he is substantially limited in the major life activity of lifting, and therefore covered under the first prong of the definition of disability.”

Summers alleged that his accident left him unable to walk for seven months and that without surgery, pain medication, and physical therapy, he “likely” would have been unable to walk for far longer. According to the Fourth Circuit, the “text and purpose of the ADAAA and its implementing regulations make clear that such an impairment can constitute a disability.”

The District Court reasoned that, because Summers could have worked with a wheelchair, he must not have been disabled. The Fourth Circuit rejected this analysis: “This inverts the appropriate inquiry. A court must first establish whether a plaintiff is disabled by determining whether he suffers from a substantially limiting impairment. Only then may a court ask whether the plaintiff is capable of working with or without an accommodation ... If the fact that a person could work with the help of a wheelchair meant he was not disabled under the Act, the ADA would be eviscerated.”

The Court also rejected Altarum’s argument that the EEOC regulations were not entitled to deference, finding that the agency’s rule was reasonable. Finally, the Fourth Circuit denied Altarum’s argument that covering temporary impairments under the ADA would impose an undue burden on employers: “Prohibiting employers from discriminating against temporarily disabled employees will burden employers only as long as the disability endures. Temporary disabilities require only temporary accommodations.”

Thus, the Court reversed the District Court’s dismissal of the ADA claim and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Conclusion

The Summers case is another example of how broadly the EEOC and the courts interpret disabilities covered by the ADA, and a reminder of how employers must treat employees with serious health conditions very carefully.