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Fourth Circuit: Severe Temporary Impairment May Constitute An ADA Disability

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) is a federal law that protects “disabled” workers from employment discrimination. In order to state a discrimination claim under the ADA, a claimant must first establish that he or she is “disabled” within the meaning of the Act.

So what constitutes a covered ADA disability? The answer to that question has changed drastically within the last several years.

In 2008, Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act (“ADAAA”) to broaden the statutory definition of “disability.” Congress did so in response to a series of Supreme Court decisions which had severely restricted the definition of “disability,” making it difficult for claimants to establish coverage under the Act. One of those decisions was Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams. In Toyota, the Supreme Court held that a “temporary impairment” could not qualify as a disability under the ADA. In other words, if an employee was only temporarily sick or injured, he was not “disabled” within the meaning of the Act.

Until recently, no appellate court had revisited the Supreme Court’s holding in Toyotain light of the 2008 ADA amendments.But earlier this month, inSummers v. Altarum Institute Corp., the Fourth Circuit did, holding that “a sufficiently severe temporary impairment may constitute [an ADA] disability.”

In Summers, the plaintiff suffered a fall which seriously injured both of his legs. He required multiple surgeries, bed rest, pain medication, and physical therapy. He alleged that without these treatments, he “would ‘likely’ not have been able to walk for more than a year after the accident.”

His employer fired him due to his inability work about a month after the accident. He sued for wrongful termination under the ADA. The trial court dismissed his ADA claim, holding that a “‘temporary condition, even up to a year, does not fall within the purview of the Act’ and so ‘the defendant’s not disabled.’”

The Fourth Circuit reversed. It held that the trial court improperly relied on cases, like Toyota, which were decided before Congress’ enactment of the ADAAA. The ADAAA both broadened the definition of “disability” and directed the EEOC to “revise its regulations . . . to render them consistent with the broadened scope of the statute.” The revised EEOC regulations state that an impairment lasting fewer than six months can be considered disabling “if sufficiently severe.” Thus, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the plaintiff had “unquestionably alleged a ‘disability’ under the ADAAA sufficiently plausible to survive a [motion to dismiss].”

In a sense, the result is not surprising. The severity of the plaintiff’s injuries, the trial court’s apparent failure to consider the 2008 ADA amendments, and the lower pleading standard applicable to motions to dismiss all made the trial court’s decision a strong candidate for reversal. But in another sense, the result is a bit surprising. The Fourth Circuit is reputed to be fairly conservative. Its wholesale rejection of all of the employer’s defenses—including the employer’s attack on the validity of the EEOC’s ADAAA regulations—will bolster the claims of future ADA plaintiffs.   In particular, you can expect to see this language from the Fourth Circuit’s opinion quoted again:

The EEOC’s decision to define disability to include severe temporary impairments entirely accords with the purpose of the amended Act. The stated goal of the ADAAA is to expand the scope of protection available under the Act as broadly as the text permits. The EEOC’s interpretation — that the ADAAA may encompass temporary disabilities — advances this goal. Moreover, extending coverage to temporarily impaired employees produces consequences less “dramatic” than [the employer]seems to envision. Prohibiting employers from discriminating against temporarily disabled employees will burden employers only as long as the disability endures. Temporary disabilities require only temporary accommodations.

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