Do two broken legs and an inability to walk for seven months qualify as a disability?
In a case of first impression since amendments to the American With Disabilities Act (ADA) took effect, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently answered yes to that question, and held that a temporary impairment may be an ADA covered disability, provided that it is sufficiently severe.
The case is Summers v. Altarum Institute. Summers worked as a senior analyst for Altarum Institute, a government contractor based in Virginia. His work for one of Altarum's clients required him to work on site during business hours, but he was allowed to work remotely from home when "putting in extra time on the project," per the client's policy.
One day on his way to work, Summers fell and injured himself while getting off a commuter train. He suffered serious injuries to both legs, including a fracture to his left leg, torn meniscus tendon in his left knee, fractured right ankle, and ruptured quadriceps-patellar tendon in his right leg. He required multiple surgeries. Doctors advised that Summers could not put any weight on his left leg for six weeks and would not be able to walk normally for seven months, at the earliest.
Summers inquired about working from home as he recovered, but an Altarum representative suggested he "take short-term disability and focus on getting well again." Despite further attempts to formulate a plan for remote work that would gradually increase back to full-time, Altarum did not suggest any alternative reasonable accommodation or engage in any interactive process with Summers. Altarum ultimately terminated his employment two months later. He sued, alleging wrongful discharge based on disability discrimination, and failure to accommodate his disability under the ADA.
The district court dismissed his claims, finding that he had not sufficiently alleged that he was disabled, because a "temporary condition, even up to a year, does not fall within the purview of the [A]ct." The district court also dismissed the failure to accommodate claim, finding that Summers did not allege that he had requested 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 only the wrongful discharge claim.
The appellate court disagreed with the lower court, noting that Congress broadened the definition of "disability" by enacting the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA). The amendments specifically overrode a U.S. Supreme court case, Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184 (2002), which suggested that a temporary impairment could not qualify as a disability under the ADA.
Under the ADAAA, Congress directed that the term "disability" be construed "in favor of broad coverage of individuals under this chapter, to the maximum extent permitted by [its] terms." EEOC regulations adopted following the enactment of the ADAAA clarified that the duration of impairment is just one factor in determining whether the impairment substantially limits a major life activity. The regulations further directed that although impairments that last only for a short period of time are typically not covered, they may be covered “if sufficiently severe," even if they last less than six months.
Applying the Proper Inquiry
As the first court to apply the ADAAA's expanded definition of disability, the Fourth Circuit had little trouble finding that Summers had "unquestionably" alleged that he suffered a disability under the meaning of the ADAAA, despite any appellate precedent to rely on.
The Court found persuasive the fact that Summers' 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.
Looking to an example provided in the EEOC appendix, the Court easily found that Summers had alleged a disability. "If, as the EEOC has concluded, a person who cannot lift more than twenty pounds for 'several months' is sufficiently impaired to be disabled within the meaning of the amended Act, then surely a person whose broken legs and injured tendons render him completely immobile for more than seven months is also disabled," wrote Judge Diana Motz.
The district court further erred in reasoning that Summers was not disabled because he could have used a wheelchair. Finding this analysis flawed, Judge Motz clarified that the proper inquiry requires first asking whether a plaintiff is disabled by determining whether he suffers from a substantially limiting impairment, and then asking whether the plaintiff is capable of working with or without an accommodation.
Temporary impairments are not categorically excluded from coverage under the ADA. Unfortunately, it is not crystal clear when a temporary impairment will rise to the level of disability. Such an inquiry will necessarily be fact-specific and on a case-by-case basis. But this case and the EEOC example referred to in it, provide helpful parameters for employment counsel as they assess whether a particular disability case falls under the ADA.