Friday, January 24, 2014

Fourth Circuit Holds Temporary Disabilities May Be Covered by the ADA(AA)

DisabilitiesThe Fourth Circuit issued an opinion yesterday on an issue of first impression under the ADA as it's been amended by the ADAAA. In Summers v. Altarum Institute Corp, the court held that a temporary disability can be a disability for purposes of the Americans with Disabilities Act, reversing a dismissal and remanding the case for further proceedings.

The plaintiff was a government contractor who was assigned to a workplace he had to travel some distance to get to. One day, on the way to work, he fell getting off of his train and seriously injured both legs. Without surgery, pain medication, and physical therapy, it would likely be a year before he would be able to walk, and with that treatment, it would likely be seven months. Almost immediately after the injury, the plaintiff suggested to his employer ways that he could work remotely and then work up to working again on site for the client, but instead of working on a plan, his employer encouraged him to take short term disability and then later terminated him. The plaintiff sued, alleging that he was discharged because of his disability.

The district court dismissed his claim, holding that "a temporary condition, even up to a year, does not fall within the purview of the [A]ct,” so the plaintiff failed to allege that he was disabled within the meaning of the ADA.  The court also suggested that the plaintiff was not disabled because he could have worked with the assistance of a wheelchair.

The court of appeals held that the plaintiff was substantially limited in the major life activity of walking even though he would eventually be able to walk again. The court acknowledged that under pre-ADAAA precedent, namely Toyota v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184 (2002), that temporary disabilities were not covered. In the ADAAA, though, Congress explicitly expanded the definition of disability and explained it was doing so to reverse the effects of narrowing Supreme Court decisions including Toyota.

Moreover, Congress directed the EEOC to revise its regulations to broaden the definition, and the EEOC did so after notice and comment. The revised regulations provide that effects of an impairment lasting even less than six months can be substantially limiting enough to constitute a disability. Duration of the impairment is one factor to consider, but severity of the impairment is also important. The more severe the impairment, the shorter the duration needed for the impairment to substantially limit a major life activity. Finally, the court held that the cause of the impairment was not relevant, at least between whether an impairment was caused by a long-term or permanent disability or an injury because the EEOC's regulations use impairment and injury interchangeably in several places in the regulations. The court gave all of these regulations Chevron deference finding that they were highly reasonable interpretations of the amended statute.

Regarding the possibility that the impairments might last less time with surgery, pain medication, and physical therapy, and that the plaintiff could be mobile enough to get to the workplace with a wheelchair, the court noted that those factors could not be considered in deciding whether the plaintiff had a disability. Doing so may have been appropriate under pre-amendment Supreme Court precedent, namely Sutton v. United Airlines, 527 U.S. 471 (1999), although the court did not cite to that case. Again, Congress specifically abrogated that case along with the other cases that narrowed the definition of disability. The court of appeals noted that the EEOC regulations prohibited considering mitigating measures, and even more importantly, that to consider an accommodation which would allow the plaintiff to work before considering whether he was an individual with a disability turned the proper inquiry on its head in a way that would eviscerate the ADA.

The plaintiff had also raised a failure to accommodate claim at the district court level, but did not raise it on appeal, and so the court of appeals did not analyze that claim. 

This case is a very important one for a number of reasons. It is the first court of appeals case to consider whether a person who suffers a temporary impairment can be considered disabled under the ADA. The decision also confirmed that the disability question is not going to be, in many cases, a big hurdle for a plaintiff, and that the EEOC regulations should be afforded deference. It also provides a context-specific test for determining whether a person is disabled that sticks to the statutory language of whether the impairment at issue substantially limits a major life activity. Substantiality is to be considered both as a question of duration, but also as a question of quantity and quality. 

The case will obviously impact many situations in which worker injuries cause relatively serious and relatively long-lasting impairments, and may impact whether employers can continue to distinguish in accommodations between on-the-job and off-the-job injuries. It also may influence whether at least some limitations caused by pregnancy have to be accommodated. Thus, this is a decision with potentially far-reaching consequences.

h/t Jonathan Harkavy

MM

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