January 29, 2014
Victory in One Federal Appeals Court for Employees with Temporary Disability
A 2014 decision by the Fourth Circuit of Appeals ( Summers v. Altarum Institute, Corporation, No. 13-1645 (4th Cir. Jan. 23, 2014)) found that an employee’s temporary condition may be considered a disability.
In October 2011, Carl Summers, a statistical analyst for Altarum (a government contractor), fell as he was getting off a train. He broke bones and tore tendons in both legs and needed surgery. His doctors told him he would not be able to put any weight on his legs for at least six weeks. Doctors also estimated that it would be seven months before Summers could walk normally again.
Summers called Altarum’s HR Department from his hospital bed to ask about temporary disability (short term disability) benefits. He also asked about working from home. The HR employee suggested that Summers should focus on getting well and that he could discuss accommodations for his temporary disability at a later time. Summers also contacted his supervisors to discuss working from home. No one at the company ever followed up on his requests and in November Altarum fired Summers. His position was filled by another analyst.
Summers sued Altarum, claiming that he was discriminated against because of his temporary disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“
ADA“). Congress enacted the ADA in 1990 to prevent discrimination of people with physical and mental disabilities in employment and other areas of life (education, public transportation, etc.)
According to the ADA, if an employee or applicant is otherwise qualified to do a job, the employer is required to make reasonable accommodations for a physical or mental impairment which greatly limits a major life activity (for example, breathing, walking, hearing, etc.)
unless the accommodation would cause an “undue hardship for the employer.”
In order for the ADA to apply, the employee must inform his employer of the temporary disability. The employer and employee must then have a conversation (called “the interactive process”) to determine what kind of reasonable accommodations would be helpful and are available. An employer cannot take action against the employee (such as terminating or demoting) just because of the temporary disability and the employer does not want to be inconvenienced by offering an accommodation.
After the Supreme Court held in 2002 that a temporary disability due to injury or illness could not be considered a disability under the ADA, Congress amended the ADA in 2008 to expand the definition of “disability.” The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission “EEOC” (the government agency responsible for enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws) issued regulations stating that, for purposes of proving disability under the ADA, “an impairment lasting or expected to last fewer than six months can be substantially limiting.”
In Summers’ case, the lower court judge ignored the change in the ADA and the EEOC regulations. That court found that Summers was not disabled because his injuries were temporary and he was expected to heal within one year. That court concluded that Altarum had not violated ADA when it fired Summers.
Summers appealed the decision to the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which reversed the lower court’s ruling. The Appeals Court found that, under the ADA amendments and the EEOC regulations, even if an impairment is short-term it may qualify as a disability if it is “sufficiently severe.” The Appeals Court concluded that the extensive injuries Summers suffered to both his legs could be considered “sufficiently severe” to justify protection under the ADA as a temporary disability. The Appeals Court sent the case back to the trial court for further litigation pursuant to this finding.