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Summers v. Altarum Institute, Co., No. 13-1645

Decided: January 23, 2014

The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s determination that a plaintiff did not qualify for protection under the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) where the plaintiff suffered from only a temporary disability, finding that the 2008 Amendments to the ADA brought temporary disabilities under ADA protection in certain circumstances.

Plaintiff, Carl Summers began working as a senior analyst for the Altarum Institute (“Altarum”) in July 2011 where he conducted research, wrote reports and made presentations for Altarum’s client, the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (“DCoE”) in Maryland. While on his way to work on October 17, 2011, Summers fell on a train platform, severely injuring both knees. Following the accident, Summers could not place any weight on his legs for six weeks. Additionally, even after surgery and considerable physical therapy, the injury prevented Summers from walking normally for at least seven months. While hospitalized, Summers contacted Altarum’s human resources department about obtaining short-term disability benefits and working from home until he was fully recovered. Altarum’s insurance company approved Summers’ application for short-term disability, but despite suggestions from Summers, never agreed to a plan that would allow Summers return to work. On November 30, 2011, Altarum informed Summers that he was being terminated effective December 1, 2011.

Summers filed a complaint against Altarum asserting that Altarum wrongfully discharged him under the ADA and failed to accommodate his disability. The district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim. The district court dismissed the wrongful discharge claim because Summers was not “disabled” under the ADA because he was expected to heal within one year and he could have worked with the assistance of a wheelchair. Similarly, the court held that Summers did not state a claim for failure to accommodate because he failed to allege that he requested a reasonable accommodation. Summers chose to appeal only the wrongful discharge claim.

To establish a claim for wrongful discharge, a plaintiff must first establish that he or she qualifies as “disabled” under the ADA. One method of establishing a “disability” under the ADA is to prove an “actual disability” where the plaintiff has a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Walking qualifies as a “major life activity” under the ADA. The Fourth Circuit noted that Congress broadened the scope of the ADA to construe coverage “to the maximum extent permitted.” The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) promulgated regulations explaining that a “substantial limitation” of a major life activity should be “construed broadly in favor of expansive coverage.” Furthermore, the EEOC regulations expressly provide that “effects of an impairment lasting or expecting to last fewer than six months can be substantially limiting for purposes of proving an actual disability.” The regulations go on to explain that “if an individual has a back impairment that results in a 20-pound lifting restriction that lasts for several months, he is substantially limited in the major life activity of lifting, and therefore covered [as having an actual disability].”

Following the EEOC’s guidance in response to the 2008 Amendments to the ADA, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court wrongly concluded that Summers was not disabled. Summers’ inability to walk plainly qualified as a restriction on a major life activity. Moreover, if the EEOC regulations provide that a person unable to life more than twenty pounds for several months is disabled, then surely Summers with two broken legs and injured tendons that render him immobile for seven months qualifies as disabled. Furthermore, Summers’ disability claim was in no way hindered by the fact that he could have worked with the assistance of a wheelchair. “If the fact that a person could work with the help of a wheelchair meant he was not disabled under the [ADA], the ADA would be eviscerated.” Therefore, the district court erred in holding that Summers was not disabled.

Finally, Altarum argued that even if Summers was disabled under the existing definition of “substantially limited” defined by the EEOC, the court should not follow that definition because the EEOC’s definition was an unreasonable interpretation of the ADA.  The Fourth Circuit disagreed; noting the numerous congressional directives to impose a broad scope in defining a disability under the 2008 Amendments to the ADA made the EEOC’s interpretation a reasonable one. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court and found that Summers was disabled under the ADA.

Full Opinion

– Wesley B. Lambert