By: Claudia D. Orr

In an apparent case of first impression for any federal appellate court, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals sides with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, holding that a temporary injury may be a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA).  Summers v Altarum Institute Corporation.[1]

In 2011, Carl Summers fell and injured himself while exiting a commuter train. He was transported to a hospital where doctors determined that he had fractured his left leg and tore a tendon in his left knee.  Summers endured two surgeries and was unable to walk normally for seven months.

The Fourth Circuit’s analysis focused on whether Summers’ temporary injuries were a disability under the ADA as amended in 2008. Granting dismissal to the employer, the district court had relied on a 2002 Supreme Court decision which suggested that a temporary injury could not qualify under the ADA.  Toyota Motor Manuf, Ky, Inc v Williams. In reversing the district court, the Fourth Circuit noted that, in 2008, Congress amended the ADA, in part, to overrule this decision. Since then, the EEOC had promulgated regulations interpreting the amendments. Of particular relevance, the court focused on an EEOC regulation that states:

“[E]ffects of an impairment lasting or expected to last fewer than six months can be substantially limiting” for purposes of proving an actual disability.

29 CFR 1630.2(j)(1)(ix). The EEOC provides the example that “if an individual has a back impairment that results in a 20-pound lifting restriction that lasts for several months, he is substantially limited in the major life activity of lifting, and therefore covered under the first prong of the definition of disability.” 29 CFR 1630.2(j)(1)(ix)(app).

The employer argued that “Congress’s intent ‘not to extend ADA coverage to those with temporary impairments expected to fully heal is evident,’ because such a ‘dramatic expansion of the ADA would have been accompanied by some pertinent statement of Congressional intent.”’ The court disagreed, stating that the consequences would be less “dramatic” than envisioned. “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 court reasoned that while the 2008 amendment to the ADA “imposes a six-month requirement with respect to ‘regarded-as’ disabilities, it imposes no such durational requirement for ‘actual’ disabilities, thus suggesting that no such requirement was intended.”

Employers likely disagree with the court’s analysis concerning the lack of “dramatic” consequences caused by a requirement under the ADA to accommodate employees with temporary injuries. This interpretation requires employers to consider, for example, whether a leave of absence should be granted to an employee during their first year of employment when Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is unavailable, or to an employee who has exhausted FMLA leave. This interpretation also burdens employers with providing an accommodation unless they can prove it would cause an undue hardship, which is not an easy burden.

If you need assistance with the ADAAA or any other employment issue, you should seek the assistance of an attorney who specializes in employment law.

This article was written by Claudia D. Orr, a member of the Legal Affairs Committee. Claudia is an experienced employment attorney at Plunkett Cooney and can be reached at corr@plunkettcooney.com or 313-983-4863.

Detroit SHRM encourages members to share these articles within their organizations; however, members should refrain from forwarding them outside their organizations or printing for mass distribution without written permission of the Detroit SHRM Executive Committee. February 2014.

[1] The Fourth Circuit hears appeals from federal district courts in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina.  The Sixth Circuit, which includes Michigan, is not bound by this decision, but may find it persuasive.

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