Fourth Circuit Applies Disability Protections to Temporary Conditions

Business owners and HR managers should be aware that even temporary injuries or conditions may place an employee within the purview of the Americans with Disability Act (“ADA”), as it has been amended. Congress expanded the definition of “disability” in the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 and the Fourth Circuit has just interpreted it to include an employee who has been badly injured in an accident and asks for an accommodation to work remotely.

In Summers v. Altarum Institute, Corp., No. 13-1645 (4th Cir. Jan. 23, 2014), Carl Summers filed suit under the ADA upon his termination less than two months after sustaining serious injuries in the course of his employment. Summers was a senior analyst for Altarum, a government contractor in Alexandria, Virginia. He was travelling by metro to the government client when he fell exiting the train. The fall fractured his left tibia, right ankle, tore his meniscus tendon, and ruptured the quadriceps-patellar tendon. His physicians said it would be seven months before he could walk, after surgeries, bed rest, paid medication and physical therapy. While still in the hospital, Summers reached out to the HR representative for Altarum to discuss a plan for returning to work. The representative suggested he “take short-term disability and focus on getting well again.” Summers followed up, suggesting he work remotely part time and gradually increase his hours until he was full time again. Altarum’s insurance provider granted Summers’ short-term disability benefits, but Altarum chose to replace Summers rather than discuss his return to work.

Summers filed suit in the Eastern District of Virginia for a discriminatory discharge based on the disability caused by his injuries. However, the district court granted Altarum’s motion to dismiss for failure to properly allege a disability because the injuries were temporary. Under prior ADA jurisprudence, this was a correct result. However, the amended ADA expands the definition of disability for ADA protection. Accordingly, Summers successfully appealed to the Fourth Circuit, which held that Summers had alleged a disability sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss under the expanded ADA Amendments Act.

The ADA Amendments Act states that some injuries of “an actual or expected duration of 6 months or less” will not constitute a disability. 42 U.S.C. §12102(3)(B). However, if the impairment is severe and substantially limiting, such as Summers’ condition was, then the impairment may be covered. Id. §12102(6)(B).The Circuit Court reversed and remanded the case to the district court for further disposition.

In explaining its decision, the Fourth Circuit panel relied heavily on EEOC regulations further defining the meaning of the amended ADA, which provide that the requirement of a disability that “substantially limits” an employee is “not meant to be a demanding standard.”  29 CFR § 1630.2(j)(1)(i)(2013).

Congress and the courts have strongly emphasized that injured employees, temporarily or permanently, are protected by the ADA and that employers need to understand the amended ADA and ensure their HR procedures reflect the changes.

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