In the first published federal appellate court opinion to apply the expanded definition of disability contained under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Summers v. Altarum Institute Corp., No. 13-1645 (4th Cir. Jan. 23, 2014), held that "a sufficiently severe temporary impairment may constitute a disability."
The plaintiff, Carl Summers, was working as a senior analyst for the Altarum Institute, a government contractor with an office in Virginia. One day on his commute to work, while carrying a heavy bag over his shoulder, he lost his footing and struck both of his knees against the train platform. Summers fractured his left leg and tore the meniscus tendon in his left knee, fractured his right ankle and ruptured the quadriceps-patellar tendon in his right leg. Surgery was required and his doctors forbade him 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.
Summers contacted Altarum about obtaining short-term disability benefits and working from home while he recovered, but Altarum agreed to discuss "accommodations that would allow Summers to return to work." Altarum did have a policy allowing employees to work remotely if the client approved. Altarum recommended Summer take short-term disability benefits and focus on getting better but they never followed up on his request to return to work, did not suggest any alternative reasonable accommodation or engage in any interactive process with Summers. Altarum also failed to inform Summers there was any problem with his plan to gradually return to work and instead terminated his employment "in order to place another analyst in his role at [the client]."
Summers then filed suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) alleging discrimination based on disability and failure to accommodate. Summer amended his complaint but the district court dismissed these claims upon Altarum's Rule 12(b)(6) motion. The court held Summers failed to allege he was disabled and stated a temporary condition, even up to a year, does not fall within the purview of the ADA." The court also held Summers did not request a reasonable accommodation as working from home was unreasonable "because it sought to eliminate a significant function of the job."
On appeal, Summers only challenged the district court's dismissal of his discrimination claim, not his failure-to-accommodate claim so the 4th Circuit did not address it, unfortunately.
In its analysis, the 4th Circuit noted the legislative intent of the ADAAA and Congress' intent to override the Supreme Court's decision in Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184, 199 (2002), where the SCOTUS adopted a strict definition of the term "disability" and suggested a temporary impairment could not qualify as a disability in order for the ADA to apply to an individual. Congress believed that Toyota set an "inappropriately high level of limitation necessary to obtain coverage under the ADA." Pub. L. No. 110-325, sec. 2(b)(5). The Court then noted the EEOC's promulgated regulations which 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. The regulations further state that although "[I]mpairments that last only for a short period of time are typically not covered," they may be covered "if sufficiently severe."
In reversing the district court's dismissal of Summers' disability discrimination claim, the Court noted the district court's decision "represented an entirely reasonable interpretation of Toyota and its progeny." The Court further noted that it is the "first appellate court to apply the amendment's expanded definition of 'disability'," and also said this case presents an unquestionable instance of a disability. This allowed the Court to comfortable end their opinion with a line stating, "[u]nder the ADAAA and its implementing regulations, an impairment is not categorically excluded from ebing a disability simply because it is temporary."
As is the case with any new law with almost zero case law precedent, it will make employment decisions dealing with disabilities, temporary or not, more difficult which further necessitates the need for employers to consult with legal counsel. It'll be interesting to see how other circuits handle this issue under the ADAAA moving forward.