ADA: Temporary Medical Condition May Be a Disability

by Smith Anderson
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A recent decision from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals[1] held that under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an impairment or injury is not excluded as a disability simply because it is temporary. In deciding Summers v. Altarum,[2] the court endorsed the approach taken by the EEOC[3] and became one of the first appellate courts to squarely apply to a temporary physical condition the expanded definition of “disability,” as provided under the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA).[4]

New Employee is Injured

The plaintiff, Carl Summers, was hired in July 2011 as a senior analyst by the Altarum Institute, a government contractor, to work in its offices in Alexandria, Virginia. In October 2011, only three months after he began employment, Summers fell while on the way to work and seriously injured both legs. He was restricted from putting any weight on his legs for six weeks and was told he would not be able to walk normally for an estimated seven months. Without treatment, Summers alleged that he would likely have not been able to walk for more than a year. Summers contacted Altarum regarding short-term disability benefits. He also requested a discussion on returning to work and suggested a plan of working remotely part-time until he could return full-time. 

Altarum granted Summers short-term disability benefits, but never followed up on Summers’ request to discuss his return to work and did not engage in an interactive process regarding an accommodation. Rather, on November 30, 2011, after Summers had been out of work for a little over one month, Altarum terminated Summers’ employment. 

Summers brought a wrongful discharge claim asserting that Altarum discriminated by wrongfully discharging him on account of his disability in violation of the ADA. The lower court had dismissed the claim, applying pre-ADAAA law and holding that Summers failed to allege that he was disabled, concluding (wrongfully, as determined by the Court of Appeals) that a “temporary condition, even up to a year, does not fall within the purview” of the ADA.[5] 

TEMPORARY MEDICAL CONDITION A DISABILITY

Summers appealed and the Court of Appeals reversed. In so doing, the Court held that “under the ADAAA and its implementing regulations, an impairment is not categorically excluded from being a disability simply because it is temporary.” [6] More specific to Summers’ claims, the Court held that Summers’ allegations that his 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, were sufficient to allege a disability under the ADA.[7] 

EEOC Regulation Given Deference

The Court gave deference to the EEOC’s Regulations and guidance interpreting the broader definition of “disability” under the ADAAA as it applies to temporary conditions. The key EEOC Regulations provide that: "the term 'substantially limits' shall be construed broadly in favor of expansive coverage," the term is "not meant to be a demanding standard," and the "effects of an impairment lasting or expected to last fewer than six months can be substantially limiting" for purposes of proving an actual disability.[8] The EEOC Regulations also clarify that the "duration of an impairment is one factor that is relevant in determining whether the impairment substantially limits a major life activity," and that although "impairments that last only for a short period of time are typically not covered," they may be covered "if sufficiently severe."[9]

The Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s dismissal of Summers’ lawsuit and the case was remanded (i.e., sent back) for further proceedings. The Court of Appeals noted that the lower court, on remand, should consider that an employee’s accommodation request, even if unreasonable, typically triggers the employer’s duty to engage in an “interactive process” to arrive at a suitable accommodation.[10] Altarum had not responded to Summers’ suggestions for accommodations and had simply terminated his employment. 

How should an employer handle? 

  1. Perform an individualized assessment when faced with any medical condition to determine whether an applicant or employee has a disability. Even a temporary injury or impairment may be a disability under the ADA. 
  2. Seriously consider all requests for accommodation, including those based on a temporary impairment or injury, and engage in an “interactive process” to discuss possible accommodations. This is true even if, in the end, the employer concludes that a reasonable accommodation does not exist. 
  3. Remember that the ADA applies to relatively short term employees (like Summers) and to applicants or new employees.

The Summers decision is one of many cases analyzing the expanded definition of disability under the ADAAA. Employers must ensure they are up to date on the most recent court interpretations affecting coverage under the ADA. 

Special thanks to Heather Warwick, Staff Attorney, for her assistance with this article.

[1] The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is the federal circuit court of appeals based in Richmond, Virginia that  covers the federal district courts located in the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.

[2] 740 F. 3d 325 (4th Cir. 2014).

[3] See 29 C.F.R. § 1630.

[4] See 42 U.S.C.A. § 12101.

[5] Summers, 740 F. 3d at 328.

[6] Id. at 333. 

[7] Id. at 330.  Since the lower court dismissed Summers’ lawsuit on a Motion to Dismiss, the Court was required to assume the truthfulness of the allegations in the Complaint.

[8] 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(1)(i), (ix). 

[9] Id. § 1630.2(j)(1)(ix)(app.).

[10] Summers at 331.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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