The Fourth Circuit Maintains a Broad Definition of “Disability” Under the ADAA

On January 24, 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issue its decision in the Summers v. Alltarum Institute case regarding the definition of “disability” in the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008 (“ADAAA“). Plaintiff appealed the dismissal of his complaint by the district court for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted.

In this case, Plaintiff fell and injured himself on his way to work. He sustained serious injuries to both legs. Following the accident, Plaintiff was not able to walk normally for roughly sevent months. During his hospitalization, Plaintiff contacted Defendant, Altarum to inquire about short-term disability benefits and working from home as he recovered. Plaintiff suggested to Defendant “a plan in which he would take short-term disability for a few weeks, then start working remotely part-time, and then increase his hours gradually until he was full-time again.” Defendant’s insurance provider agreed to grant Plaintiff’s short-term disability benefits. However, Defendant did not follow up with Plaintiff regarding his return to work and neither discussed alternative accommodations nor engaged in any interactive process with Defendant. Instead, Plaintiff was terminated effective December 1, 2011, in order to place another analyst in his former position.

Following his sudden termination, Plaintiff filed a complaint in the Eastern District of Virginia alleging two claims under the Americans With Disability Act (“ADA“): (i) a discrimination claim alleging that Defendant discriminated against him by wrongfully discharging him on account of his disability; and (ii) a claim alleging that Defendant failed to accommodate his disability. In October 2012, the district court granted Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed both claims without prejudice. In December 2012, Plaintiff filed a new lawsuit, which virtually included the two same claims. Following this second lawsuit, the district court ruled in favor of Defendant again, granting its motion to dismiss both claims, with prejudice this time. Regarding Plaintiff’s wrongful discharge claim, the district court specifically held that: “even though Plaintiff had ‘suffered a very serious injury,’ this injury did not constitute a disability because it was temporary and expected to heal within a year.” Following this decision, Plaintiff appealed his wrongful discharge claim only. However, the Court of appeals disagreed with this holding and emphasized the fact that: “nothing about the ADAAA or its regulations suggests a distinction between impairments caused by temporary injuries and impairments caused by permanent conditions. Because Plaintiff alleges a severe injury that prevented him from walking for at least seven months, he has stated a claim that this impairment ‘substantially limited’ his ability to walk.”

Finally the Court of Appeals concluded that: “under the ADAAA and its implementing regulations, an impairment is not categorically excluded from being a disability simply because it is temporary. The impairment alleged by Plaintiff falls comfortably within the amended Act’s expanded definition of disability. We therefore reverse the district court’s dismissal of Summers’s wrongful-discharge claim and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

If you are an employee and you believe you have been discriminated against or have been wrongfully discharged, please contact the Harman Firm, P.C.