Federal appellate court analyzes meaning of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act

summers v. altarum instituteThis month the federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision in Summers v. Altarum Institute. It’s the first appellate court to address the definition of “disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA). The ADAAA has been a tremendous source of agony for employer-side lawyers (and employers). It expanded the meaning of disability and protections for disabled employees beyond the original Americans with Disabilities Act.

Employer-side lawyers have been waiting for an appellate court to hand down an opinion recognizing the full expanse of the ADAAA and make their nightmares come true. The Fourth Circuit handed down such an opinion and the hand wringing over its implications could not have started more quickly. Across the interwebs, employer-side attorneys put their agony to text and exaggerated about how the Summers opinion, “confirms all our worst fears about the law.” Ok, let’s see what the big deal is here.

The facts in Summers v. Altarum Institute

Let’s get into a brief discussion of the facts alleged by Summers. Summers worked at Altarum as an analyst. One day he fell at a train station and badly damaged his legs. (This was not a work-related injury.) His doctors said he would need at least seven months of treatment before he would be able to walk normally. He went on short term disability benefits (STD). Summers then sent Altarum’s HR department a proposed plan to reintegrate to his job, based on his treatment plan. He would remain on STD for a few weeks then work remotely on a part time basis and scale his hours up to full time. Altarum never responded to this request.

Instead, it terminated his to place another analyst in the role. Summers then filed suit under the ADAAA for disability discrimination in the termination and failure to reasonably accommodate his disability. Altarum argued that Summers’ injury was temporary. Therefore did not meet the ADAAA definition of disability, therefore he could not bring claims under the ADAAA. The trial court agreed and dismissed Summers’ suit. Summers appealed.

The legal issue in Summers v. Altarum Institute

This case presented the first appellate-level opportunity to review the ADAAA’s disability definition as it affects the traditional ADA interpretation that temporary disabilities are not protected by the law. Under the ADA’s original definition, as interpreted by the courts, the duration or permanence of the disability was a factor courts had to consider to determine whether a particular impairment qualified under the law. In a particularly brutal Supreme Court decision, the highest court in the land ruled temporary impairments never qualified under the ADA.

The ADAAA removed that requirement and the accompanying regulations state the the temporary nature of an impairment does not exclude it from qualifying as a disability under the ADAAA. The appellate court wholly shredded Altarum’s attempts to rely on pre-ADAAA cases to support its position and upheld the EEOC regulatory interpretation of the ADAAA on this issue. (The legal analysis is technical; if interested in getting into the details then review the court’s opinion. It is too well-written to give it the justice it deserves re-composing it here.)

Why this matters going forward

This is a huge win for plaintiff-employees suffering temporary disabilities. It doesn’t expand anything about the ADAAA beyond the clear intent and language of the ADAAA. It just took six years for an appellate court to agree that the statute says what it says. That doesn’t seem like it should have to count as a win; but put in context of almost twenty years of federal courts chopping down the ADA then it’s a major win for all of us.

It won’t result in a flurry of new litigation. The ADAAA statutory language already set out what the Summers court said. Summers will put employers on notice to take disability issues more seriously, even temporary disabilities. We will no doubt see several years of judicial opinions giving further clarification on the issue, particularly addressing when a medical condition might be so brief that the ADAAA would not apply. The ADAAA certainly was not meant to convert the ADA into a sick leave policy.

If you have a temporary physical or mental impairment and you will require an accommodation at work, including leave, you should speak with my office about setting up your accommodation request to preserve your rights under the ADAAA. You may also have rights under the Family Medical Leave Act that may apply as well. It’s better to obtain approval for the accommodation or FMLA leave than to litigate because your employer violated your rights. That is something I can assist you with but only if you give me a call or email.

For more information about the case you can read the Fourth Circuit’s detailed opinion here:

Summers v. AltarumSummers v. Altarum

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