If your temporary impairment is bad enough, it can be considered a disability.
Summers v. Altarum Institute, Corporation, No. 12-1645 (4th Cir. Jan. 23, 2014). Carl Summers’ job at Altarum Institute required that he travel to Maryland to serve one of Altarum’s clients. The client, the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (“DCoE”), preferred that contractors work on site, but allowed them to work remotely if working hours in addition to their regular schedule.
On October 17, 2011, Mr. Summers fell while exiting a commuter train on his way to DCoE. This fall resulted in serious injury: Mr. Summers fractured his left leg, tore the meniscus tendon in his left knee, fractured his right ankle and ruptured the quadriceps-patellar tendon in his right leg.
As a result of these injuries, Mr. Summers’ doctors recommended that he not put any weight on his left leg and estimated that he would not be able to walk normally for at least seven months. Mr. Summers’ recovery would require surgery, bed rest, pain medication, and physical therapy, without all of which he likely would not have been able to walk for more than a year.
While Mr. Summers was still hospitalized, he contacted an Altarum Human Resources representative about obtaining short-term disability benefits and working from home during his recovery. The HR representative agreed to discuss accommodations that would allow him to return to work, but suggested that he take short-term disability and focus on getting well again. Mr. Summers emphasized in emails to his supervisors that he sought to return to work and wanted to institute a plan for his return.
Altarum’s insurance provider granted Mr. Summers’ short-term disability benefits, but Altarum never followed up on Mr. Summers’ request to discuss his return to work or suggest any alternative reasonable accommodation. The company also never told Mr. Summers that there was any problem with his planned return. Instead, Altarum terminated Mr. Summers’ employment effective December 1, 2011, in order to place another analyst in Mr. Summers’ role at DCoE.
Mr. Summers filed suit and made two claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Mr. Summers asserted that Altarum discriminated against him by terminating his employment because of his disability, and that Altarum failed to accommodate his disability. The District Court granted Altarum’s Motion to Dismiss, stating first that Mr. Summers had failed to allege that he was disabled. The Court reasoned that Mr. Summers’ condition was temporary, such that he was not disabled, and also stated that because he could work with the assistance of a wheelchair he was not disabled. Additionally, the court dismissed Mr. Summers’ failure-to-accommodate claim on the ground that Summers failed to allege that he had requested a reasonable accommodation. The court reasoned that an employee bears the burden of requesting a reasonable accommodation, and that Mr. Summers’ request to work from home was unreasonable.
Mr. Summers appealed the district court’s dismissal of his wrongful discharge claim, and the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision.
In determining whether the district court erred, the Fourth Circuit looked to the EEOC’s regulations interpreting the ADA. Mr. Summers alleged that his physical impairments substantially limited one of his major life activities—walking—and thus that he was disabled. Under the ADA regulations, “effects of an impairment lasting or expected to last fewer than six months can be substantially limiting” for purposes of proving an actual disability. The appendix to the EEOC regulations also specifies 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.”
The Court then examined the district court’s analysis, which reasoned that Mr. Summer’s injury, while severe, did not constitute a disability because it was expected to heal within a year. Though this would have been a reasonable application of ADA precedent, under the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (which was designed to broaden courts’ interpretations of the “disability” analysis) the Fourth Circuit determined that Mr. Summers was, in fact, disabled.
In issuing this holding, the Court rejected Altarum’s argument that the EEOC regulations were not entitled to deference, and that Congress intended to withhold ADA coverage from temporarily impaired employees. The Court also found that the district court erred in determining that because Mr. Summers could work with the assistance of a wheelchair he was not disabled. The determination of a disability is to be made without regard to the ameliorative effects of reasonable accommodations, such as a wheelchair.
This holding is important because it demonstrates that temporary impairments, if sufficiently severe, can constitute a disability under the ADA. The Court also stated an employee’s request for an accommodation—even if the requested accommodation is unreasonable—triggers the employer’s responsibility to engage in an “interactive process” to arrive at a suitable accommodation. Of course, temporary impairments that could be deemed temporary disabilities require only temporary accommodations.