Fourth Circuit Says Severe Temporary Impairment May Be a Disability

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals became the first federal appeals court to rule that temporary impairments can be disabilities under the amended ADA, if they are sufficiently severe. Summers v. Altarum Institute Corp. (4th Cir. 2014). The court allowed an employee who was fired less than two months after sustaining serious injuries that would have prevented him from walking for seven months to move forward with his ADA claim in district court. 

Summers, a senior analyst for government contractor Altarum, sustained fractures and tendon damage in both of his legs while exiting a commuter train. His injuries required hospitalization and surgeries, and restricted him from weight-bearing activities. Summers requested to work from home part-time, increasing to full-time. Altarum did not respond to his request and terminated him less than two months after the accident. Summers sued Altarum for failing to accommodate him and wrongfully discharging him because of his disability. Altarum argued that Summers’ injury was temporary and, therefore, not a disability. The Fourth Circuit disagreed and allowed his case to go forward.

The Fourth Circuit relied on Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) post-ADA Amendments Act regulations to find that Summers’ short-term impairment was sufficiently severe to qualify as a disability. Citing the appendix to the regulations, the court reasoned that if the EEOC found that a person with a 20-pound lifting restriction lasting several months could be disabled, certainly Summers’ more extensive impairment was severe enough to qualify.

This decision is binding authority in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. It is only persuasive authority elsewhere. Still, the court’s willingness to apply the expanded definition of disability to temporary impairments, if adopted by other circuits, could cause employers to reconsider how they handle temporary impairments, and whether they might be disabilities.