COVID-19 Is Not a Disability Under the ADA

But COVID-19 long-haulers likely are protected

By Jeffrey Rhodes September 14, 2021
microscopic view of the coronavirus

​Contracting COVID-19 or being in contact with a COVID-19-infected person does not alone trigger the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia ruled.

The plaintiff worked as a quality assurance technician at Mannington Mills' Madison, Ga., facility. Her brother also worked at the same facility. Around 5 p.m. on March 26, 2020, the plaintiff had a conversation with her brother in the parking lot following her shift, but before he started his shift.

During their roughly four-minute conversation, the plaintiff's brother sat in his vehicle and the plaintiff stood several feet away. About four hours later, the plaintiff's brother started feeling ill, and Mannington Mills sent him to the emergency room where he was tested for COVID-19. On March 30, 2020, his test came back positive.

Before the plaintiff came to work that day, the HR director asked her if she went to her brother's workstation on the day he got sick. The plaintiff said that she had not. The HR director asked if she had been around her brother at work or outside of work around the time he became symptomatic, and she said no. The plaintiff forgot about the parking lot conversation with her brother and did not tell the HR director about it at the time.

The plaintiff's supervisor confronted her and told her that three of her co-workers told him that they saw her speaking to her brother in the parking lot on March 26. After her supervisor questioned her, the plaintiff recalled the parking lot encounter with her brother, told him about it and apologized for forgetting about it earlier.

The plaintiff's supervisor told her to go home and quarantine for 14 days. The plaintiff alleged that her supervisor made her feel diseased and discarded. The next day, the HR director phoned the plaintiff and accused her of dishonesty because she did not disclose the parking lot conversation with her brother when initially asked.

The HR director expected the plaintiff to have remembered the encounter because it was her own brother and told the plaintiff that she could have infected other employees. The next day, April 1, the HR director again called the plaintiff and told her that she was being terminated.

The plaintiff submitted a charge of discrimination to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and the EEOC issued her a notice of rights. The plaintiff sued Mannington Mills for discrimination under the ADA based on her association with her brother, who tested positive for COVID-19. She alleged that the company did not investigate whether other employees had had close contact with her brother; it questioned only her because she was related to him. She claimed that she alone was accused of dishonesty for not remembering her conversation with him. Unlike other employees, she was not allowed to work from home or take paid leave when asked to quarantine.

Mannington Mills filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The court reasoned that whether her ADA claim could proceed depended on whether her brother's COVID-19 infection qualified as a disability under the ADA.

The plaintiff alleged that her brother had had a positive COVID-19 test result and had had to quarantine for 14 days. She also alleged that COVID-19 could impact the respiratory system, immune system and nervous system, and can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome. However, she did not allege that her brother experienced acute respiratory distress syndrome from COVID-19, or any other severe symptoms that limited his abilities during or after his 14-day absence.

The court found that being sent home from work due to COVID-19 did not qualify as a substantial limitation of the major life activity of working. Therefore, the plaintiff did not allege that her brother had an actual disability and could not establish she was discriminated against for her association with him. She claimed that the company perceived him as disabled, but the court found that a perceived disability does not support a discrimination-by-association claim.

The court thus dismissed the plaintiff's case.

Champion v. Mannington Mills Inc., M.D. Ga., No. 5:21-cv-00012 (May 10, 2021).

Professional Pointer: Merely contracting COVID-19 generally will not qualify as a disability. However, if an employee suffers further complications, or long-term effects, from the coronavirus, they may well qualify as an ADA disability.

Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with McInroy, Rigby & Rhodes LLP in Arlington, Va.



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