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Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals holds that a severe temporary impairment constitutes a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act

Summers v. Altarum Inst., Corp.
___ F.3d ___, No. 13-1645 (4th Cir. Jan. 23, 2014)

by Wayne C. Heavener, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (

In Summers v. Altarum Institute Corporation, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that a sufficiently severe temporary impairment may constitute a disability under the recent amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Writing for the Court, Judge Diana Gribbon Motz held that the District Court’s dismissal of Plaintiff’s wrongful-discharge claim was improper under the 2008 amendments to the ADA. The Court held that the 2008 amendments expanded the ADA to encompass temporary impairments that substantially limit a plaintiff’s life activities. In this case, the plaintiff stated facts sufficient to allege a disability when he stated that he could not walk for months, and required surgeries to return to an ambulatory state.

Carl Summers (“Plaintiff”) conducted statistical research for the Altarum Institute (“Defendant”), which is a government contractor in Alexandria, Virginia. Defendant required that Plaintiff travel to a client’s location in Maryland. On October 17, 2011, Plaintiff fell and injured himself while exiting a commuter train on his way to the client’s offices. Plaintiff’s injuries were severe, and required various surgeries. These surgeries included a procedure to drill a hole in the Plaintiff’s patella in order to refasten his tendons to his knee.

Plaintiff contacted Defendant’s human-resources representative regarding short-term disability benefits and working from home. Defendant’s representative agreed to discuss “accommodations that would allow [Plaintiff] to return to work,” but suggested that Plaintiff “take short-term disability and focus on getting well again.” Summers v. Altarum, ___ F.3d ___, No. 13-1645, slip op. at 4–5 (4th Cir. Jan. 23, 2014). Defendant’s insurance provider granted Plaintiff short-term disability benefits, and Plaintiff inquired as to how he could return to work. Defendant never returned Plaintiff’s inquiries regarding how he might return to work. Nor did Defendant suggest any alternative reasonable accommodation. On November 30, 2011, Defendant informed Plaintiff that he was to be terminated the following month.

Plaintiff filed a Complaint in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, alleging claims under the ADA. Plaintiff asserted that Defendant discriminated against him by wrongfully discharging him on account of his disability, and failing to accommodate his disability. The District Court granted Defendant’s Rule 12(b)(6) motion. Rather than amend his Complaint, Plaintiff filed a new suit with essentially the same claims; the District Court again granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss. The District Court rested its decision on two (2) bases: Plaintiff failed to allege that he was disabled because a temporary condition does not fall within the ADA’s definition of “disability;” and, Plaintiff failed to allege that he had requested a reasonable accommodation because his suggestion to work from home was unreasonable. Plaintiff appealed only the District Court’s dismissal of his wrongful-discharge claim, and not his failure-to-accommodate claim.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court’s decision. The ADA makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability. 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). The Court noted that, in 2008, Congress broadened the definition of “disability” under the ADA, in an attempt to abrogate the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the ADA in Toyota Motor Manufacturing , Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184 (2002). In particular, Congress sought an expansive interpretation of the language “substantially limits” under 42 U.S.C. § 12102 (1), which states that a “disability” includes “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Id. Noting that it is the first appellate court to apply the amendment’s expanded definition of “disability,” the Court found that Plaintiff “unquestionably alleged a ‘disability’ under the [2008 amendments] sufficiently plausible to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion.” Summers, slip op. at 11.

The Court held that Plaintiff’s allegations that the accident left him unable to walk for several months, and that he required surgery, medication, and physical therapy simply to walk again, constituted a disability under the 2008 amendments to the ADA. The Court found that the District Court erred in relying on pre-amendment ADA case law, and failed to determine whether Plaintiff suffered from a substantially limiting impairment. The Court rejected Defendant’s position that a temporary impairment cannot constitute a disability under 2008 amendments to the ADA. The Court looked to the 2008 amendments’ implementing regulations, promulgated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), and found that those regulations were entitled to deference under Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984). The Court held:

The stated goal of the [2008 amendments to the ADA] is to expand the scope of protection available under the Act as broadly as the text permits. The EEOC's interpretation — that the [amendments] may encompass temporary disabilities — advances this goal. Moreover, extending coverage to temporarily impaired employees produces consequences less “dramatic” than Altarum 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.

Summers, slip op. at 16. The Court similarly rejected Defendant’s argument that the EEOC’s regulations mandated different treatment for claims arising from temporary impairments caused by injuries, as opposed temporary impairment caused by permanent injury. Therefore, the Court reversed the District Court’s dismissal of Plaintiff’s wrongful-discharge claim, and remanded for further proceedings.