Temporary Impairment Can Be Disability Under ADAAA

Volume 13, Issue 1
February 7, 2014

In the first appellate court decision to address the expanded definition of "disability" under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), Summers v. Altarum Institute, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit (which includes Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, among others) emphasized that temporary conditions can constitute disabilities

Facts of the Case: An employee had a serious accident that injured both legs and required several surgeries. He was unable to walk for seven months. After his short-term disability benefits expired, he sought to telecommute on a part-time basis, with a plan to work back up to full-time. The employer did not respond to his suggestion or engage in any interactive discussions about what accommodations might be possible. Rather, it terminated and replaced him. The employee then filed suit, claiming, among other things, that the employer discriminated against him by wrongfully discharging him on the basis of his disability. The employer argued that the employee's condition, which lasted less than a year, was only a temporary impairment that should not be considered a disability under the ADAAA, and the employee was therefore not entitled to the protections of the Act. The federal district court agreed with the employer and dismissed the employee's disability discrimination claim.

The Court's Ruling: On appeal, the 4th Circuit found that the district court had applied the wrong, pre-ADAAA, standard for assessing disability. Noting that the ADAAA was intended to broaden the scope of the law, the 4th Circuit referenced the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's regulations, which state, "effects of an impairment lasting or expected to last fewer than six months can be substantially limiting" for purposes of establishing a covered disability.

Moreover, as the Court observed, the EEOC further stated in the appendix to the regulations that, although "[i]mpairments that last only for a short period of time are typically not covered," they may be covered, "if sufficiently severe." An example of such a disability given by the EEOC was a back impairment resulting in a 20-lb lifting restriction lasting only for "several months." In light of this guidance by the EEOC, the 4th Circuit determined that the employee's seven-month condition did, in fact, constitute a disability.

Lessons Learned: Employers should be wary of dismissing a temporary condition as not being a disability. Prior to the ADAAA, it was generally understood that conditions lasting less than 6 months would not be considered a covered disability. However, as this decision makes clear, this temporal guideline no longer applies, and conditions lasting only two or three months may fall within the expanded definition of disability.

This HR Focus article was prepared by Shawe Rosenthal LLP, a member of the Worklaw® Network and first appeared in its January 31, 2014 E-UPDATE. Reprinted with permission

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