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Temporary Impairment May Be ‘Disability’ Under ADA

By Laurie A. Petersen and Samantha J. Wood  2/21/2014
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A temporary impairment may be a covered disability under the amended Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, the first federal circuit court to apply the ADA Amendments Act’s (ADAAA) expanded definition of the term “disability.”

To prove a violation under the ADA, a plaintiff must show, among other things that he or she suffered from a “disability.” 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, 2) a record of such an impairment, or 3) being regarded as having such an impairment. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court in Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams adopted a strict construction of the term “disability” and suggested that a temporary impairment could not qualify as a disability under the ADA. In response, Congress passed the ADAAA in 2008. The legislation abrogated the Toyota decision, providing that the definition of disability “shall be construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals … to the maximum extent permitted. …” 42 U.S.C. Section 12102(4)(A).

While traveling for work, Carl Summers, a senior analyst for the Altarum Institute, fell and sustained serious injuries to both of his legs. Doctors forbade Summers from putting any weight on his left leg for six weeks and established 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 Altarum human resources to obtain short-term disability benefits and inquire about working from home as he recovered. The Altarum representative agreed to discuss accommodations that would allow Summers to return to work but suggested that he first take short-term disability and focus on getting well. Summers also sent e-mails to his supervisors regarding returning to work and suggested a plan in which he would take short-term disability and then start working remotely part-time. Altarum never followed up on Summers’ request to discuss his return to work. Instead, after a month and a half, Altarum simply terminated Summers.

Summers filed a complaint in the Eastern District of Virginia for failure to accommodate his disability and wrongful discharge on the basis of his disability. The district court dismissed both claims, reasoning that although Summers suffered from a serious injury, the injury did not constitute a disability because it was temporary in nature and expected to heal within a year.

On appeal, Summers only challenged whether Altarum illegally terminated him because of a disability. The 4th Circuit reversed the decision of the lower court, reasoning that the ADAAA specifically overruled Toyota in favor of broad coverage of individuals. Further, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) regulations clarify 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. The EEOC Appendix also states that although “impairments that last only for a short period of time are typically not covered,” they may be covered if “sufficiently severe.” Applying the expanded definition of a disability, the 4th Circuit held that although Summers’ injury was temporary, such an injury, which rendered him completely immobile for more than seven months, was “surely” severe enough to qualify as a disability under the ADA.

Summers v. Altarum Inst. Corp., 4th Cir., No. 13-1645 (Jan. 23, 2014).

Professional Pointer: Employers should not assume a temporary condition is not a disability. Instead, they should carefully apply an individualized assessment and evaluate an employee’s impairment as it would manifest without treatments such as medication, mobility devices and physical therapy, to determine if it is “sufficiently severe” to constitute a disability.

Laurie A. Petersen and Samantha J. Wood are attorneys at Lindner & Marsack, S.C., the Worklaw® Network member firm in Milwaukee, Wis.  

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