Disability Act May Cover Temporarily Injured Workers

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A recent ruling by a federal appeals court expands the definition of disabilities covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act to include temporary impairments. The ruling sets an important legal precedent for workers who are seriously injured or ill, even if the condition is not permanent.

The case, Summers v. Altarum Institute, Corporation, revolved around a Virginia man named Carl Summers who worked as a senior analyst at Altarum Institute, a federal government contractor. Summers suffered a nasty fall when exiting a commuter train, fracturing his leg and tearing tendons.

The injury impaired Summers’ ability to walk. Doctors predicted that he would be able to walk normally in approximately seven months. They recommended that he get bed rest and obtain temporary disability benefits for the first six weeks, with ongoing treatment over the course of many months, including physical therapy.

After receiving temporary disability insurance payments that supported him through initial recovery, Summers contacted Altarum and requested accommodations so that he could work remotely in some instances to avoid placing too much strain on his injured legs. Instead, Altarum terminated Summers’ employment in December 2011 on the presumption that this temporary impairment did not protect him under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In 2008, Congress amended the ADA to add provisions to protect disabled workers. The Summers ruling is the first time that the courts applied enhanced worker protections to a person suffering from a temporary injury.  Although the ADA generally notes that temporary illnesses and injuries with a duration of less than six months do not normally qualify as “disabilities,” a debilitating condition that severely impairs a person’s ability to function normally is covered, even if that condition is short term.

A panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reasoned that Summers’ injury should have qualified him for ADA-mandated employer accommodations, given the fact that he was unable to walk. The court considered that an extreme and severe condition limiting Summers’ ability to work normally.

As time goes on, human resources experts and federal regulators will start to sort out the implications of the case. But the bottom line may well be a bright spot for injured workers who need help coping with short-term disabilities.

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