ADA’s Expanded Definition of Disability Includes Temporary Injuries

3.7.2014

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, the federal appellate court whose decisions are binding on North Carolina courts, recently held that temporary impairment may qualify as a “disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) if the impairment is sufficiently severe.   The ADA makes it unlawful for employers of 15 or more employees to discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of “disability.”   The ADA protects employees who have actual disabilities, as well as those who have a record of disability or who are regarded as having a disability.  In response to a series of Supreme Court cases that restricted the scope of the ADA, Congress broadened the definition of “disability” by enacting the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (“Act”).  An actual “disability” is defined as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities” including “seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, speaking, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.”  42 U.S.C. § 12102.

 The Fourth Circuit is the first appellate court to apply the Act’s expanded definition of “disability.”  In Summers v. Altarum Inst., Corp., 740 F.3d 325 (Jan. 23, 2014), the plaintiff-employee was an analyst who conducted research, wrote reports and made presentations.  He alleged that he was terminated because he was unable to walk normally for several months after he broke his legs during a fall while exiting a commuter train.  His employer argued that “temporary impairments due to injuries” do not fall within the definition of “disability.”  Deferring to the EEOC’s interpretation of the ADA and the regulations it promulgated pursuant to the Act, the Fourth Circuit held that the plaintiff-employee had alleged a “disability” under the amended ADA.

The Summers decision is a good reminder that employers should consider whether an employee’s condition constitutes a “disability” entitling the employee to accommodations and protections beyond the FMLA.  Broken legs and other temporary conditions traditionally not considered “disabilities” may trigger the ADA’s requirements of non-discrimination and reasonable accommodation, such as allowing employees to work an alternative schedule.  Employers would be wise to perform an individualized ADA assessment in each situation.

For more information on the ADA, please contact Marshall Gallop at mgallop@bwsw.com.

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