Americans With Disabilities Act – Definition of Disability Clarified

February 19th, 2014 | By Jules Halpern Associates | ADA, Circuit Court Decisions, Disability

A recent case clarified the contours of the term “Disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The decision provides helpful insight to where courts are going with the definition. On January 23, 2014 the federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals became the first circuit court to address the definition under the ADA Amendments Act (the “Amendments”), approximately five years after they went into effect.

All employers should take note of the Court’s interpretation of the term “disability,” because it is very likely that other circuits will follow suit, considering the court’s persuasive analysis.

Carl Summers fell and injured both legs during his morning commute to his job with defendant Altarum Institute. Doctors estimated Mr. Summers would not be able to walk regularly for seven months. As a result, Mr. Summers contacted his employer to suggest a plan to gradually return to work. Altarum offered no response to Mr. Summers’ proposal, and six weeks later notified him of its intent to terminate his employment.

Mr. Summers then filed two claims: 1) wrongful termination; and 2) failure to accommodate his disability. The Court dealt with the fundamental question as to whether or not Mr. Summers’ injury qualified as a disability.

The district court that first heard Mr. Summers’ claims dismissed them both. The district court reasoned that a temporary condition, such as Mr. Summers’ injury, does not meet the standard of “disability” under the ADA. However, the Fourth Circuit noted that the district court failed to consider the impact of the Amendments on the definition. In relevant part, the Amendments state that the term disability “shall be construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals…to the maximum extent permitted by [its] terms.” As a result, the Fourth Circuit overturned the district court’s decision. In reaching its decision, the Fourth Circuit analyzed the legislative history of the Amendments, which indicated Congress wanted “a broad scope of protection to be available under the ADA.” The Fourth Circuit noted that Congress aimed to overturn past court decisions that suggested a temporary impairment could not qualify as a disability.

As the Court’s decision demonstrates, the Amendments have clearly reshaped the lines of disability under the Act and at the workplace. There are several lessons for employers to take from this case:

1. Employers should be aware of regulations issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). As noted in the decision, Congress explicitly instructed the EEOC to update its regulations to conform to the broader definition of disability expressed in the Amendment.

2. Temporary conditions are not usually covered under the ADA; however, they may be if “sufficiently severe.” For example, the updated EEOC regulations currently consider a person unable to lift 20 pounds for several months to be disabled. The Court considered this example when it determined Mr. Summers had a “disability” under the Amendments and its regulations.

3. Mitigating measures (e.g. bed rest, pain killers, physical therapy, all of which Mr. Summers used) are not considered when determining whether an individual has a disability.

4. Differentiating between “disability” caused by illness and one caused by injury is irrelevant to a court’s effort to determine plaintiff’s status under the ADA. Remember, Mr. Summers’ alleged his “disability” was due to injury, not illness.

Given the express language of the Amendments, along with this decision, the message to employers is clear: the term disability will be construed liberally. As the case illustrates, it is a difficult task for employers to determine whether or not their employee has a disability. The landscape of “disability” claims is changing, and employers should take note and adopt appropriate policies.

Jules Halpern Associates LLC

Workplace and Education Law Advisors

Jules Halpern Associates LLC
JULES HALPERN ASSOCIATES LLC is a boutique law firm committed to serving our clients in all facets of their workplace issues. We provide personalized, practical advice that resonates with our clients’ business objectives.
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