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In Win for TELG Client, Fourth Circuit Finds ADA Can Cover Temporary Injuries


Posted on January 23, 2014
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DISCLAIMER: THIS POST CONCERNS A CLIENT OF THE EMPLOYMENT LAW GROUP® LAW FIRM. THE RESULTS OF ALL CASES DEPEND ON A VARIETY OF FACTORS UNIQUE TO EACH CASE. PAST SUCCESSES DO NOT PREDICT OR GUARANTEE FUTURE SUCCESSES.

Seal of the 4th CircuitA federal appeals court ruled today that a serious — but temporary — injury can count as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit is the highest court to tackle this issue since Congress broadened the ADA’s scope in 2008, and its opinion will be highly influential. In deciding unanimously for Carl Summers, an injured employee represented by The Employment Law Group® law firm, a three-judge panel held that federal courts should defer to rules issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which has said that the ADA can cover severe injuries that last as little as “several months,” as long as they limit a major activity such as walking.

Originally passed in 1990, the ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against workers based on disability. In 2008, concerned that the U.S. Supreme Court had been too stingy in its definition of “disability,” lawmakers updated the statute to emphasize its far-reaching intent. While the revamped ADA didn’t spell out its inclusion of short-term injuries, Congress told the EEOC to interpret the law generously. Today, the Fourth Circuit said judges shouldn’t second-guess that instruction, nor the “clear” EEOC rules that followed.

The appellate opinion in Summers v. Altarum Institute was clear, too: The injury claimed by Mr. Summers — two badly injured legs, both requiring surgery, with a recovery period of at least seven months — “falls comfortably” within the ADA’s updated definition of a disability, the court said. A lower-court judge was incorrect to rule otherwise.

Altarum, a government contractor, fired Mr. Summers in late 2011 after he smashed both legs while traveling to an Altarum client’s workplace. The employer granted him short-term disability benefits, but then stonewalled his requests to return to work under different terms — and ultimately terminated him without further discussion.

Mr. Summers is seeking reinstatement, back pay, and other relief. Based on today’s ruling, his wrongful discharge case will resume in U.S. district court.

“This decision is a victory for the ADA, for injured Americans, and for common sense,” said David Scher, a principal of The Employment Law Group. “Discriminating against a disabled employee is wrong, period. Congress made that very clear in 1990 — and even clearer in 2008. Yet Altarum claimed it was perfectly legal to fire Carl after his injury because, hey, he’d be walking again in a year. Obviously that argument offends the spirit of the ADA; now we know it also offends the law itself.”

Mr. Scher represented Mr. Summers before the Fourth Circuit.

Today’s opinion didn’t officially rule on whether Mr. Summers is a “qualified individual” for the purpose of claiming wrongful discharge under the ADA — but the appellate panel showed him favor on that issue, too.

In order to proceed as a qualified individual, Mr. Summers must demonstrate that he could have continued in his job under some reasonable scenario. According to the court, workers who suggest how their disability might be accommodated, as Mr. Summers did with Altarum, trigger a legal duty for their employer to join in an “interactive process” to reach an arrangement.

If the employer shirks this duty where an arrangement could have been reached, the court said, then the employer essentially takes the rap for failure to accommodate — regardless of whether a worker’s initial suggestion was viable.

In this case, Altarum simply didn’t respond to Mr. Summers’ proposals for returning to work. By citing this general principle, borrowed from a 2012 case in another circuit, today’s decision hinted that Altarum shouldn’t invest much time arguing that Mr. Summers isn’t a qualified individual.

The Fourth Circuit’s opinion in Summers v. Altarum Institute is available on the court’s Web site.

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