On January 23, 2014 – more than five years after the 2008 ADA Amendments (“ADAAA”) became effective – the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit was the first Circuit Court to weigh in on the ADAAA’s expanded definition of “disabled.” In Summers v. Altarum Institute, Corp., 2014 WL 243425 (4th Cir. Jan. 23, 2014), the court held that a severe, temporary impairment can rise to the level of a qualifying disability.
Carl Summers worked for Altarum Institute, Corp. (a federal government contractor) as a Senior Analyst. As part of his job duties, he traveled to the office of an Altarum client to perform auditing and other analytical tasks. During the course of one of his daily commutes to the client’s office, Summers fell and fractured his left leg and right ankle, tore a tendon in his left knee and ruptured a tendon in his right knee. After undergoing surgery on both legs, Summers’ doctor prohibited him from bearing any weight on his left leg for six weeks and estimated that he would not be able to fully walk again for at least seven months.
From his hospital bed, Summers contacted Altarum to discuss his options. Summers made it clear that he intended to return to work, but Altarum suggested that Summers initially apply for Short Term Disability and focus on his recovery. After being approved for Short Term Disability, Summers again contacted his employer to develop a plan to return to work gradually by initially working from home.
Altarum ignored Summers’ requests for a discussion. Altarum did not offer Summers an alternative reasonable accommodation, nor did it indicate why Summers’ requested accommodation (i.e., to work from home while he eased back into work) was unreasonable (other Altarum employees were permitted to work from home, with client permission). Less than two months after his accident, and without having engaged in the ADA interactive process with Summers, Altarum terminated Summers’ employment so that they could place another analyst with the client.
Summers brought an EEOC charge and, subsequently, a federal lawsuit against Altarum asserting that he was “actually disabled” and alleging ADA disability discrimination. The lower court dismissed the case, holding that because Summers’ impairment was expected to last less than one year, it was not a qualifying disability within the meaning of the ADA. This holding was consistent with a line of pre-amendment cases following the Supreme Court’s decision in Toyota v. Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184, 199, which held that temporary impairments were not disabilities under the ADA.
In reversing and remanding the lower court’s dismissal, the Fourth Circuit Court noted that Congress specifically abrogated the Toyota decision when it passed the ADAAA. The court also relied on the EEOC’s regulations (29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(1)(ix)), which provide that “the effects of an impairment lasting or expected to last fewer than six months can be substantially limiting” for purposes of proving a disability, and the corresponding Appendix to the EEOC regulations, which further provides that although “impairments that last only for a short period are typically not covered,” they can be covered if “sufficiently severe.” Finally, the court observed that, “while the ADAAA imposes a six-month requirement with respect to ‘regarded as’ disabilities, it imposes no such durational requirement for ‘actual’ disabilities, thus suggesting that no such requirement was intended.” Therefore, the court held that the “EEOC’s decision to define disability to include severe temporary impairments entirely accords with the purposes of the amended Act.”
Based on the Summers decision and the EEOC regulations it upheld, employers should proceed with caution when dealing with employees who have serious temporary impairments, as they may be entitled to reasonable accommodations and the full interactive process.