In a recent opinion, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has found that a sufficiently severe temporary impairment may constitute a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended.  Carl Summers hurt himself on the job.  He was carrying a large bag and injured both legs.  With a torn meniscus and a leg fracture, the employee suggested to the employer that he take some time off, work part-time and then return with an accommodation.  Altogether, this plan would take about a year.  But, the employer decided they would simply terminate Mr. Summers.  The employer chose not to engage in the interactive process to arrive at a mutually agreeable accommodation, perhaps because the employer believed Mr. Summers was not covered by the ADA.  As a temporary impairment, he would normally not be covered by the ADA. 

In the resulting lawsuit, the court granted the employer’s motion to dismiss on the grounds that a temporary impairment, even for as long as one year, does not fall within the ambit of the ADA.  But, on appeal, the Fourth Circuit found that Mr. Summers would not be able to walk for seven months.  Without surgery, pain medication, and physical therapy, he would not be able to walk for a far longer period than seven months. Under the broadened coverage of the ADA Amendments Act, this was sufficient to make a claim of impairment.  The court explained that the ADAAA was passed specifically to overrule the strict holding in Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc.v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184, 199 (2002), and its progeny.  

The Toyota decision suggested that a temporary disability could never be protected by the ADA.  The ADA Amendments Act did not provide one way or the other whether a temporary impairment would be protected, noted the Fourth Circuit.  But, the regulations drafted by the EEOC do provide coverage for temporary disabilities that are "severe." 

The EEOC regulations do not state that an "injury" cannot also be an impairment.  Indeed, under the new ADAAA, an impairment of the "muscoskeletal" system can be a disability.  And, the regulations use the terms "injury" and "impairment" interchangeably, said the court.  See Summers v. Altarum Institute Corp., No. 13-1645 (4th Cir. 1/23/2014) opinion.  

The court reversed the dismissal.  This is the first appellate decision to address the temporary injury issue under the ADAAA.  It will surely lead to additional temporary injury claims. 

For more comments, see Robin Shea’s post at Employment and Labor Insider blog and Jon Hyman’s post at Ohio Employer’s Law Blog post