Ain’t nothing like it used to be,” wailed the rock band Steppenwolf a few decades ago, and that observation applies as well to the definition of “substantial limitation” under the ADA.  In a case of first impression, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the “substantial limitation” on a major life activity needed to meet the ADA’s definition of “disability” need not be as substantial as it used to be.   Summers v. Altarum Institute, Corporation (4th Cir. January 23, 2014).

The decision comes as no surprise. In 2002, in Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, the Supreme Court held that the terms ‘substantially’ and ‘major’ “need to be interpreted strictly to create a demanding standard for qualifying as disabled” under the ADA. In 2008, Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act, specifically rejecting this “demanding standard” in favor of “broad coverage” and telling courts to find that individuals have a disability “to the maximum extent” permitted by the law. Due to Summers, temporary impairments may be sufficiently “substantially limiting” to support a finding that the individual has a disability.

In Summers, due to an accident, the plaintiff had fractured bones and torn tendons in his legs and knees. His doctors told him that with surgery and physical therapy, he would be unable to walk normally for at least seven months; without surgery and PT, he would be unable to walk normally for at least a year. He had surgery. Six weeks after the plaintiff’s accident, his employer terminated his employment.

In dismissing the plaintiff’s ADA claim, the district court had said that a “temporary condition, even up to a year” was not a substantial enough limitation. In reversing that decision, the Fourth Circuit cited EEOC regulations stating that the “effects of an impairment lasting or expected to last fewer than six months can be substantially limiting” if they are “sufficiently severe.”  The court concluded that being unable to walk for seven months, and even longer without surgery, was sufficiently severe to be “substantially limiting.”