In 2008, Congress amended the Americans with Disabilities Act to fix Supreme Court and other cases that had narrowed the door through which disabled employees could fit their claims. Since then, the cases have gradually reflected the broadening of the definition of disability. Cases that arose under the old law were still judged under the old, restrictive standards. There can’t be many more of those left to litigate, after six years.
But sometimes changing the minds of courts used to applying the restrictive viewpoint is a slow process. A recent Fourth Circuit case underlines this tendency, Summers v. Altarum Institute. An employee was seriously injured while commuting home from work. His injuries required surgery and therapy; he was not expected to walk normally for seven months. Soon after his injury, though, he suggested to his employer that he ease back into work with some remote work, some part-time work, and eventually he would return. The employer told him to concentrate on recovery, and then, six weeks after his injury, fired him.
The trial court dismissed the case, reasoning that his temporary condition did not meet the definition of disability under the law. The Fourth Circuit reversed, stating definitively that a temporary disability qualifies under the amended law. The employer argued that he was not substantially limited in the ability to walk, as he alleged, because he could have used a wheelchair. Stunning reasoning: I used to believe that under the former version of the ADA only wheelchair users could count on qualifying as disabled. For our circuit, anyway, this case sweeps away such notions, and stands behind the law and the regulations expanding on the definitions.