Fourth Circuit becomes first court to apply expanded disability definition

Photo of a wooden gavel against a golden background
Americans with Disabilities Act

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled January 23 that a “sufficiently severe temporary impairment” may constitute a disability, becoming the first appellate court to apply the new definition of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendment Act.

“Although short-term impairments qualify as disabilities only if they are ‘sufficiently severe,’…it seems clear that the serious impairment alleged by Summers is severe enough to qualify,” the Fourth Circuit stated. “If, as the (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) has concluded, a person who cannot lift more than twenty pounds for ‘several months’ is sufficiently impaired to be disabled within the meaning of the amended Act…then surely a person whose broken legs and injured tendons render him completely immobile for more than seven months is also disabled.”

The plaintiff in the case, Carl Summers, requested that he work from home while recovering from leg injuries.

His employer, the Altarum Institute, argued that since Summers would only need the assistance of a wheelchair temporarily, he was not “disabled” for the purposes of the Americans with Disabilities Act and it was therefore not required to reasonably accommodate him. Accordingly, Summers was fired.

Prior to 2008, when Congress amended the ADA, Altarum Institute would likely have been able to have Summers’ case dismissed. Specifically, Altarum Institute would have relied on a the 2002 case, Toyota Motor Manufacturing v. Williams, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the ADA did not apply to people with temporary disabilities.

With the ADAAA, Congress directly overturned the Toyota decision, as well as multiple other Supreme Court decisions that dramatically narrowed the ADA’s reach. In subsequent regulations, the EEOC stated that “effects of an impairment lasting or expected to last fewer than six months can be substantially limiting” for purposes of determining whether a person is covered under the ADA.

In Summers’ case, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia applied the pre-ADAAA definition and ruled for Altarum Institute. The Fourth Circuit overturned the decision, remanding the case back to the district court to determine whether the Altarum Institute violated the ADA by failing to reasonably accommodate Summers.