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Can a Temporary Impairment Qualify as an ADA Disability?

Added by Hawley Troxell in Articles & Publications, Employment Law on February 13, 2014

To qualify for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protections, an employee must first have a “disability.” In 2008, Congress broadened the definition of “disability” under the ADA in response to the United States Supreme Court having adopted a narrow definition of “disability.” By March 2011, the EEOC issued its final rules related to the ADA changes.

Just recently, in January 2014, the Fourth Circuit (which covers several Mid-Atlantic States) issued an opinion declaring that it was “the first appellate court to apply the [ADA] amendment’s expanded definition of ‘disability.’” In Summers v. Altarum Institute, the issue was whether a temporary impairment can be a disability under the ADA. The Fourth Circuit held that, under the right circumstances, it could: A “sufficiently severe temporary impairment may constitute a disability,” and “an impairment is not categorically excluded from being a disability simply because it is temporary.”

The employee in Summers was an analyst for a government contractor. One day while commuting to work, he sustained serious injuries to both legs in an accidental fall. Doctors estimated that he would not be able to walk normally for at least seven months. While hospitalized, the employee contacted his employer to discuss accommodations that would allow him to return to work. However, the employer never followed up to discuss how he might come back to work. Instead, the employer terminated him.

The employee sued his employer, asserting that he had been wrongfully discharged due to his disability. Ultimately, the district court dismissed the wrongful discharge claim, reasoning that “‘a temporary condition, even up to a year, does not fall within the purview of the [ADA]’”—meaning that the employee was not disabled.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit disagreed and reversed the district court. The Fourth Circuit held that while “short-term impairments qualify as disabilities only if they are ‘sufficiently severe,’” it seemed clear that the impairment alleged by the employee—being “unable to walk for seven months and that without surgery, pain medication, and physical therapy, he ‘likely’ would have been unable to walk for far longer”—was “severe enough to qualify” as a disability.

Thus, employers should not automatically conclude that an employee does not meet the current ADA definition of disability simply because the employee’s impairment is temporary. Even a temporary impairment may qualify as a disability if it is sufficiently severe.

If you have any questions regarding the ADA or other employment matters, please contact a member of our employment group or call 208.344.6000.