When does an impairment become a covered disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act? In the first published federal appellate court decision to apply the expanded definition of “disability” contained in the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (“ADAAA”), the Fourth Circuit held that a temporary impairment caused by an injury may be a disability if it’s sufficiently severe to substantially limit a major life activity.
In Summers v. Altarum Institute Corp., an employee who worked as a senior analyst for a government contractor fell and injured himself while exiting a commuter train on his way to a work assignment. Because of the employee’s severe injuries, his ability to walk was impaired, and doctors projected that he would need at least 7 to 8 months of recuperation before being able to return to his normal duties. Despite minimal discussions relating to working from home, the employer terminated the employee less than two months after his injuries because he could not perform his duties on site.
The employee brought an action under the ADAAA alleging that he was terminated as a result of a disability. The district court below dismissed the employee’s claim reasoning that a temporary condition lasting one year or less does not qualify as a disability. The Fourth Circuit disagreed. In reaching its decision, the Court observed that Congress enacted the ADAAA to abrogate a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, which included a decision that suggested a temporary impairment could not qualify as a disability. The Court also looked at the ADAAA regulations, which, although not specifically applicable to this case, provide that in relation to a “regarded as” disability claim, a plaintiff will not be disabled if the impairment is of an actual or expected duration of six months or less. There is no similar durational requirement for the “actual-disability” prong, but the regulations 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. Additionally, the Court noted that the EEOC regulations include a significant lifting restriction lasting several months as an example of a covered disability. The Court also rejected the employer’s argument that deference should not being given to the EEOC regulations, which defined disability to include short-term impairments.
Ultimately, the Fourth Circuit ruled that “[u]nder the ADAAA and its implementing regulations, an impairment is not categorically excluded from being a disability simply because it is temporary.” This decision reinforces the expansive reach of the ADAAA and serves as a reminder that the determination of whether an employee has a disability requires an individualized assessment that should always be done on a case-by-case basis.