Are things like high blood pressure or a fractured leg “disabilities”? Appeals courts across the country are starting to say “yes.”

Just last month, the Seventh Circuit Court found that temporary ailments — in this case high blood pressure — could qualify as disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Now, a new case from the Fourth Circuit Court has ruled on a similar case.

Injured getting off the train

Carl Summers worked as a senior analyst for Altarum, a government contractor in Alexandria, VA.

Several months into an assignment with a client, Summers fell and injured himself while getting off of a train on his way to the client’s offices. He fractured his left leg, tore the meniscus tendon in his left knee, fractured his right ankle and ruptured the quadriceps-patellar tendon in his right leg.

After two surgeries involving metal plates and screws, doctors forbade Summers from putting any weight on his left leg for six weeks and estimated he wouldn’t be able to walk normally for seven months at the earliest.

Without surgery, bed rest, pain medication and physical therapy, Summers alleged that he’d “likely” not have been able to walk for more than a year after the accident.

Fired out of the blue

While hospitalized, Summers contacted an Altarum HR rep about obtaining short-term disability benefits and working from home as he recovered.

The Altarum rep agreed to discuss “accommodations that would allow Summers to return to work,” but suggested that Summers “take short-term disability and focus on getting well again.”

Summers sent emails to his supervisors at Altarum and his client seeking advice about how to return to work; he suggested “a plan in which he would take short-term disability for a few weeks, then start working remotely part-time, and then increase his hours gradually until he was full-time again.”

Altarum’s insurance provider granted Summers short-term disability benefits. But Altarum never followed up on Summers’s request to discuss how he might successfully return to work. The company didn’t suggest any alternative reasonable accommodation or engage in any interactive process with Summers. Nor did Altarum tell Summers that there was “any problem with his plan for a graduated return to work.”

Instead, about a month after the incident, Altarum simply informed Summers “that Altarum was terminating [him].”

Was it ‘sufficiently severe’?

Summers sued, claiming disability bias.

A lower court dismissed the case, but on appeal, Summers won.

Why? The appeals court cited Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regs that say that impairments or ailments that last fewer than six months can be disabilities if they’re “sufficiently severe.”

The court said that being unable to walk for seven months — or a year without surgery — could very well qualify as limiting enough to count as a diability.

The court remanded the case for further proceedings.

Seven questions

Littler Mendelson Katie Goetzl had the following takeaway for HR pros:

In addition to confirming that the scope of the ADAAA is much broader than the ADA, the Summers decision reinforces the fact that the determination as to whether an applicant or employee has a disability requires an individualized assessment.  Factors that employers should consider in making such a determination include:

  • How difficult is it for the individual to perform the major life activity?
  • How much time does it take the individual to perform the major life activity?
  • Does the individual experience pain when performing the major life activity?
  • For what time period can the individual perform the major life activity?
  • How does the impairment affect the operation of a major bodily function?
  • Does the individual experience negative side effects of medication taken for the impairment?
  • Is the treatment regimen required for the impairment burdensome?

The case is Summers v. Altarum Institute Corp.

Post Your Resume to 65+ Job Sites
Resume Service

Post to Twitter Tweet This Post