Are Injuries Covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act?

The answer to that question has traditionally hinged upon the severity of the injury itself. Prior to September 2008, Courts were unwilling to extend the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) to individuals who suffered from non-permanent injuries on the basis that such “temporary” injuries did not constitute a disability as defined by the ADA. That unwillingness seems to have eroded since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008 (“ADAAA”).

Acting in response to a series of Supreme Court decisions that Congress believed improperly restricted the scope of the ADA, Congress passed the ADAAA for the purpose of “reinstating a broad scope of protection to be available under the ADA.” Part of effectuating this goal involved instructing the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) to revise the regulations governing the ADA, including the definition of the term “substantially limits,” to render the regulations consistent with the broadened scope of the statute. The EEOC did just that, noting that the term “substantially limits” is “not meant to be a demanding standard” and that “effects of an impairment lasting or expected to last fewer than six months can be substantially limiting” for purposes of proving an actual disability.

Relying on the ADAAA and the revised EEOC regulations, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently overturned a district court decision holding a temporary injury could not constitute a disability as a matter of law. In Summers v. Altarum Institute, Corp., No. 13-1645 (4th Cir., Jan. 23, 2014), the court reviewed a case involving an employee who had sustained serious injuries to both of his legs which led his doctors to order him not to place any weight on his left leg for six weeks. It was also estimated that Summers would not be able to walk normally for seven months at the earliest. Summers’ injuries, although serious and sufficient to entitle him to short-term disability benefits, were not permanent. This led the district court to dismiss Summers’ case on the premise that such non-permanent injuries were not disabilities as defined by the ADA.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit held: “Under the ADAAA and its implementing regulations, an impairment is not categorically excluded from being a disability simply because it is temporary.” As a result, Summers’ case was sent back to the district court where he will now be able to litigate his claims of discrimination and failure to provide a reasonable accommodation for his disability against his former employer.

Although not binding on the Seventh Circuit and, therefore, not automatically applicable to Indiana employees, this decision demonstrates a newfound willingness by the courts to extend the protections of the ADA beyond permanent conditions and into the realm of serious, albeit temporary, health conditions and injuries.