Keywords: temporary disability; ADAAA; sufficiently severe; Title I; reasonable accommodation
Summary: The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that under the 2008 Americans with Disabilities Amendment Act a ”sufficiently severe” temporary impairment may be a disability.
Carl Summers (“Summers”) began working for Altarum Institute in Alexandria, Virginia, as a senior analyst in July 2011. Altarum held contracts with the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (“DCoE”). Summers traveled to the DCoE’s Maryland offices for work and performed statistical research and created reports and presentations. Altarum’s employment policies allowed employees to work remotely provided the client permitted it. DCoE preferred that contractors work on-site but allowed contractors to work off-site when working outside business hours.
While traveling to DCoE on October 17, 2011, Summers fell and struck his knees on the train platform while exiting. Summers was taken to the hospital by paramedics, and the doctors determined that Summers fractured his left leg and tore the meniscus tendon in his right leg. Summers required surgery on his left-leg fracture, which included insertion of a metal plate, screws, and bone into his tibia. Summers then required an additional surgery for his ruptured right quadriceps, which included drilling a hole into his patella and refastening his tendons to his knee. Summers was unable to put any weight on his left leg for six weeks and his doctors opined that he would not be able to walk normally for at least seven months. Summers alleges that without his surgeries, bed rest, pain medication, and physical therapy, he would probably have been unable to walk for a year or more after the accident.
When he was hospitalized, Summers spoke with an Altarum human resources representative who agreed to discuss “accommodations that would allow Summers to return to work,” and suggested that for the meantime, Summers “take short-term disability and focus on getting well again.” Summers also sent emails to his supervisors at both Altarum and DCoE asking for advice about the process of returning to work. Summers offered that he would take short-term disability leave for a few weeks and then start working part-time remotely, increasing his hours until he is full-time.
Altarum allowed Summers to take short-term disability benefits but never discussed his plan to return to work and did not offer any other accommodation or engage in an interactive process with Summers. On November 30, Altarum notified Summers that he would be terminated effective December 1, 2011 so that another analyst could fill his position at DCoE.
Summers filed several complaints in the Eastern District of Virginia between September and December 2012, alleging Altarum wrongfully discharged him on account of his disability and failed to provide a reasonable accommodation for his disability as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). In October 2012, Summers amended his complaint, and the district court thereafter granted Altarum's motion dismissing both claims without prejudice.
The district court granted Altarum’s motions to dismiss all of Summers’ complaints. As to the wrongful discharge claim, the court stated that Summers failed to allege that he was a person with a disability because his condition was temporary and he could have worked with a wheelchair. As to the failure to provide a reasonable accommodation claim, the court stated that Summers failed to allege that he requested a reasonable accommodation, and in the event that his proposal to work from home was such a request, it was unreasonable because it “sought to eliminate a significant function of the job.”On appeal, Summers challenged the district court’s dismissal of his wrongful discharge claim only.
Did the District Court err in dismissing Summers' wrongful-discharge claim by holding that he was not a person with a disability because his condition was temporary?
The Court of Appeals held that the District Court erred in dismissing Summers’ wrongful-discharge claim because under the 2008 ADA Amendments Act (“ADAAA”) and its implementing regulations, a temporary impairment may constitute a “disability” under the ADA.
To establish a wrongful discharge claim under the ADA, a plaintiff must prove that he or she is a person with a disability. In 2008, the ADAAA expanded the definition of “disability” to include temporary disabilities. The purpose of the ADAAA was to allow broad coverage for persons with disabilities. Additionally, the EEOC adopted new regulations that allow a “sufficiently severe” temporary impairment lasting six months or less to constitute a “disability.”
Applying the expanded definition of “disability” to the facts that Summers’ knee and leg injuries left him unable to walk for seven months, and required two surgeries, pain medication and physical therapy in order to regain the ability to walk, the Court of Appeals determined that this temporary impairment may be sufficiently severe to constitute a “disability.” Altarum argued that Congress never intended for the ADA to cover temporary impairments that were expected to fully heal, but the court found no such intent in the statute or the amendments. In fact, Congress enacted the 2008 Amendments to correct an overly restrictive interpretation of “disability” in the ADA. Altarum also argued that the EEOC regulations did not intend to cover “temporary impairments due to injuries” and thus, Summers’ impairment still does not qualify as a “disability.” However, the court found that the EEOC regulations make no such distinction between temporary impairments caused by injuries or those caused by permanent or long-term conditions that have only a limited impact. Therefore, the District Court erred in holding that Summers did not have a disability because his injuries were temporary.
Additionally, the District Court erred in relying upon pre-ADAAA case law in their analysis of what constitutes a “disability”, and in misapplying the ADA disability analysis. The District Court’s reasoning that Summers could have worked with a wheelchair, and therefore, he must not be a person with a “disability”, was incorrect. According to the ADA, a court must first determine whether a plaintiff is a person with a “disability”, which inquires as to whether the person has a substantially limiting impairment. Next, the court may ask whether the individual is able to work with or without a reasonable accommodation, without considering the “ameliorative effects of a reasonable accommodation.” Therefore, Summers’ use of a wheelchair should not have been considered in analyzing his need for a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA.
Thus, the Court of Appeals held that the District Court erred in dismissing Summers’ wrongful-discharge claim because ADAAA and its implementing regulations, a temporary impairment may constitute a “disability” under the ADA.
The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of Summers’ wrongful discharge claim because the court found that a jury could find that Summers was a person with a disability based on the facts. Thus, the case was remanded back to the district court for a determination on whether Summers is a person with a disability and thus was entitled to a reasonable accommodation at his former workplace.
This case is significant because it is the first appellate case in the Fourth Circuit in which the court addressed the expanded definition of “disability” under the 2008 ADAAA in relation to temporary disabilities.
The Fifth, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits have not directly addressed whether a temporary impairment constitutes a “disability” under the ADA. However, the Fifth Circuit, in Patton v. eCardio Diagnostics LLC, 793 F. Supp. 2d 964, 969 (S.D. Tex. 2011), held that a jury could find that a plaintiff with two broken femurs, which prevented her for walking for a period of time, may be a person with a “disability” under the ADAAA. Additionally, in E.E.O.C. v. Chevron Phillips Chem. Co., LP, 570 F.3d 606, 620 (5th Cir. 2009), the Fifth Circuit reversed a district court opinion which stated, in part, that plaintiff’s “intermittent” or “temporary” impairment did not constitute a “disability” under the ADA. Moreover, federal district courts in Texas, which is in the Fifth Circuit, have recognized impairments that are not of long duration or are “episodic or in remission” to be disabilities under the ADAAA. See Meinelt v. P.F. Chang's China Bistro, Inc., 787 F.Supp.2d 643 (S.D. Tex. 2011) (Rosenthal, J.) (plaintiff had an operable brain tumor); Norton v. Assisted Living Concepts, Inc., 786 F.Supp.2d 1173, 1184–85, (E.D. Tex. 2011) (plaintiff had renal cancer that was in remission).