Fourth Circuit Upholds ADAAA's Broad Definition of "Disability"

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Explore:  ADA ADAAA Disability SCOTUS

Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) over five years ago on Sept.17, 2008. The act’s stated purpose was to reinstate “a broad scope of protection to be available under the ADA” as the result of several decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court that had created an “inappropriately high level of limitation necessary to obtain coverage under the ADA.”

Since the ADAAA’s passage, courts throughout the country have interpreted various aspects of its broadened scope. However, there were no reported decisions from any federal appellate courts analyzing whether an individual was "disabled.” On January 23, 2014 the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes North and South Carolina, issued an opinion in Summers v. Alltarum Institute that generally upholds the expansive nature of law. 

Facts of the case

Altarum Institute is a government contractor that hired Carl Summers as an analyst in 2011. Summers was assigned to work on-site at a government agency, though Altarum permitted employees to work from home if the client allowed it. The agency to which Summers was assigned did permit working from home in certain situations.

Several months after Summers began work, he fell while exiting a commuter train and seriously injured his legs. He underwent extensive surgery to repair the damage, and his doctors estimated that he would not be able to walk normally for at least seven months.

Summers received benefits under Altarum’s short-term disability insurance policy. He inquired about continuing to work from home while receiving disability benefits, though Altarum’s human resources department initially told him to just collect his benefits and concentrate on his recovery. Summers then suggested a gradual return-to-work arrangement, which included a period of working from home and a stepped increase in hours. According to Summers, Altarum never responded to his proposal but, instead, terminated his employment to place another analyst in his position.

Summers filed a lawsuit against Altarum for wrongful termination, among other things, claiming he was terminated because of his alleged disability. The federal district court dismissed the lawsuit, concluding that Summers did not have a “disability” under the ADA because: (1) his injuries were temporary and, thus, not within the purview of the ADA; and (2) that he was not disabled because he could have worked with the assistance of a wheelchair.

Summers appealed the dismissal of his wrongful termination claim, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal.

Why was Summers permitted to assert a wrongful termination claim?

According to the Fourth Circuit, the district court based its decision on cases pertaining to claims that arose before the ADAAA took effect. The Fourth Circuit emphasized that the standard for determining whether an individual is “disabled” is much more lenient than it was before the passage of the ADAAA. Applying the ADAAA and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s implementing regulations, the court determined that even an impairment lasting less than six months could be a “disability” for the purposes of the ADA. Notably, although earlier court decisions suggested that a temporary condition may not constitute a “disability” under the ADA, the broader interpretation of the term mandated by the ADAAA led the Fourth Circuit to reach a different result.

Moreover, the Fourth Circuit noted that mitigating measures, such as the use of a wheelchair, could not be considered when evaluating whether an individual was “disabled.” Once the ADAAA took effect, with some limited exceptions, employers are no longer permitted to consider the ameliorative effects of mitigating factors (such as prosthetics, medication, or hearing aids) when determining whether an individual’s impairment substantially limits a major life activity.

What can employers learn from this case?

Many employers use a "six month" rule to assess whether an individual's temporary injury or condition constitutes a disability. But there is no definitive rule, and each determination should be made on a case-by-case basis.

Admittedly, the “regarded as” provisions of the ADAAA talk about a six-month minimum duration. Under these provisions, an individual with a temporary condition lasting less than six months would generally not be subject to coverage under the ADA solely on the basis that the employer regarded the individual as disabled. However, the same does not apply to an individual who has an actual disability.

“Transitory and minor” conditions are still not an actual disability under the ADAAA and are thus not subject to its protection. However, a sufficiently severe injury can be a disability, even if its duration is less than six months. Determining whether an individual is disabled or otherwise covered under the ADAAA will continue to be a challenge for employers. Courts are going to apply the ADA broadly, as it was modified by Congress in the ADAAA. Because the act was passed over five years ago, this is likely not a surprise to most employers. Nevertheless, in light of the challenges presented by temporary conditions, employers should consider each situation separately and thoroughly before making personnel decisions and consult with counsel, as necessary.