Although the ADA does not generally cover temporary impairments as disabilities under the law, the Fourth Circuit is the first Court of Appeals to declare that a temporary impairment can be severe enough to be a disability under the law.
In Summers v. Altarum Institute Corporation [pdf], the court of appeals reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the former employee’s disability and wrongful discharge claims. Mr. Summers was a senior analyst at Altarum Institute. During Mr. Summers’ employment, he fell and injured both of his legs while exiting a commuter train. After the accident, doctors prohibited Mr. Summers from putting weight on his leg for six weeks. Following those six weeks, doctors estimated that it would be a minimum of seven months before he would walk again. Less than two months after the injury, Altarum terminated Mr. Summers’ employment without engaging in any interactive process regarding possible reasonable accommodations.
As previously noted in this blog, the ADA was amended in 2008. In Summer, the Fourth Circuit noted that it was the first court to apply the definition of disability to include temporary impairments. The Court held that the “EEOC 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.” Here, the Court noted that Mr. Summers’ injuries squarely fell within the definition of a disability as it was alleged to be substantially limiting. The Court further noted that “prohibiting employers from discriminating against temporarily‑disabled employees will burden employers only as long as the disability endures. Temporary disabilities require only temporary accommodations.”
The Fourth Circuit’s decision continues to advance the expanding definition of individuals who are disabled under the law. Employers should proceed with caution before taking an adverse action (e.g., demotion or termination) against an employee due to the employee’s medical circumstances.