A Sufficiently Severe Temporary Impairment May Constitute a Disability

Posted on January 31, 2014

There is no question that the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (“ADAAA”) broadened the meaning of “disability and provide employees even greater protection under the ADA. However, there remain some areas of uncertainty with regard to this new, broader definition. One such question was how the permanence of an impairment (or lack thereof) would affect the disability determination. The Fourth Circuit addressed this issue head on in Summers v. Altarum Institute, Corp., No. 13-1645 (4th Cir. January 23, 2014) and, while noting that it was the first appellate court to apply the expanded definition of “disability” under the ADAAA, concluded that a severe temporary impairment can constitute a disability.

Summers was a senior analyst at Altarum Institute when he fell and injured himself getting off a commuter train on his way to a client’s office. He fractured his left leg, tore the meniscus tendon in his left knee, fractured his right ankle, and ruptured the quadriceps-patella tendon in his right leg. Summers had to have significant surgery and doctors forbade him from putting any weight on his left leg for six weeks. His doctors estimated he would not be able to walk normally for seven months at the earliest. He brought two claims against Altarum under the ADA, including a claim that he had been discriminated against and wrongfully discharged because of his disability. The district court dismissed this claim on the grounds that a temporary condition, even up to a year, did not constitute a disability. Summers appealed. The Fourth Circuit reversed the decision of the district court, finding that the temporary nature of the injury suffered by Summers did not mean that he was not entitled to protection under the ADA.Under the ADA, a disability must be shown to substantially limit one or major life activities. As the Fourth Circuit explained, the ADAAA significantly broadened the definition of “disability” under the ADA and “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.’” Summers, p. 9 (quoting 42. U.S.C. § 12102(4)(A)). “Further, Congress instructed that the term ‘substantially limits’ be interpreted consistently with the liberalized purposes of the ADAAA.” Id.

Following the enactment of the ADAAA, the EEOC issued regulations, providing that the term “substantially limits” is to be construed broadly and “is not meant to be a demanding standard.” 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(1)(i). The regulations further provide that “effects of an impairment lasting or expected to last fewer than six months can be substantially limiting.” 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(1)(ix). The appendix to the EEOC regulations provides that although impairments lasting only for a short period of time are typically not covered, they may be covered if sufficiently severe. 24 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(1)(ix)(app.). The example given by the EEOC is that if an individual has a back impairment that results in a 20 pound lifting restriction for several months, he is substantially limited in the life activity of lifting and thus disabled. Id.

In Summers, the Fourth Circuit found that if a person who cannot lift more than 20 pounds for several months is sufficiently impaired to be disabled, then “surely a person whose broken legs and injured tendons render him completely immobile for more than seven months is also disabled.” Summers, p. 12.

The Fourth Circuit also found that the district court’s analysis was incorrect, in that it reasoned that because Summers could have worked with a wheelchair, he must not have been disabled, explaining that this “inverts the appropriate inquiry,” and noting that “[i]f 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.” Id., p. 13.

The Fourth Circuit rejected Altarum’s contention that the EEOC regulations did not warrant deference. First, the Fourth Circuit pointed out that the ADAAA does include a durational requirement in a different context. Along with proving actual disability, a person may bring a claim under the ADA on the basis that he or she was discriminated against because he or she was regarded as disabled. The ADAAA provides that for the “regarded-as” prong, a plaintiff will not be disabled if his impairment is “transitory and minor,” of “an actual or expected duration of 6 months or less.” The Fourth Circuit found that because no such durational requirement was included for actual disabilities, it was not intended. Additionally, the EEOC’s decision to include temporary impairments “accords with the purpose of the amended Act.” Id., p. 16.

Finally, the Fourth Circuit rejected Altarum’s argument that the EEOC regulations do not apply to temporary impairments due to injury like that suffered by Summers, pointing out that the definition of impairment used by the EEOC “surely includes broken bones and torn tendons” and that the EEOC uses the terms “injury” and “impairment” interchangeably at times. Id., p. 17.

Summers further emphasizes the point that many more impairments, injuries, and conditions constitute disabilities in the wake of the ADAAA. Employers’ focus is better focused on insuring that they are complying with the requirements of the ADA and appropriately addressing requests for accommodation instead of on whether an employee is able to meet the definition of disabled.

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