Federal Courts Confront COVID-19 and Disability Discrimination

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The coronavirus pandemic has temporarily or permanently disabled millions of Americans, which has resulted in several lawsuits with outcomes that rest upon whether COVID-19 can be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA protects individuals with qualifying disabilities from being discriminated against in all areas of public life, including employment. Under the ADA, a person has a qualifying disability when they; (1) have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, (2) have a record of such impairment, or (3) are regarded as having such impairment. Based on recent guidance issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and guidance jointly published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), COVID-19 and Long-COVID may be considered disabilities under the ADA. However, even though COVID-19 and long COVID may be considered disabilities, courts approach each situation on a case-by-case basis, and they will examine the individual symptoms that a person is experiencing to determine whether their condition qualifies as a disability protected by federal law.

Matias tested positive for COVID-19 and informed her employer of her test result. On the same day, Matias’ employer terminated her . . .

For example, two federal courts recently reached separate conclusions on whether plaintiffs satisfied the ADA definition of a disability due to COVID-19. In Matias v. Terrapin, which was heard by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the plaintiff sued her previous employer after she was terminated from her employment. Matias was a Direct Support Professional at Terrapin’s residential facility when she reported to her supervisor that she felt sick and lost her senses of taste and smell. Matias tested positive for COVID-19 and informed her employer of her test result. On the same day, Matias’ employer terminated her, reasoning that Matias was not a good fit despite never receiving negative feedback about her job performance before. Matias filed a discrimination claim under the ADA, claiming that Terrapin terminated her because she had COVID-19. Terrapin argued that Matias did not have a disability because the illness associated with COVID-19 is transitory and minor, which does not qualify for protection under the ADA.

In this case, the court needed to determine whether Matias had a qualifying disability under the ADA for her claim against her employer to proceed. The court held that Matias did have a claim because her employer could regard her as having an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The court also held that even though COVID-19 infection could be transitory, lasting less than six-months, COVID-19 is not a minor illness and can cause many serious complications and health issues. Because Matias disclosed her symptoms and positive COVID-19 test to her supervisor, the court  concluded that her employer regarded her as having a disability. Being terminated on the same day she disclosed this information raised a strong inference that Matias was regarded as being disabled.

Being terminated on the same day she disclosed this information raised a strong inference that Matias was regarded as being disabled.

In McKnight v. Renasant Bank, which was heard by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, the plaintiff similarly sued her previous employer who terminated her employment after she recovered from COVID-19. McKnight was a Senior Payroll Assistant at Renasant Bank who took medical leave when she and her husband fell ill with COVID-19. McKnight was hospitalized in the ICU for 5 days with severe lung problems. She eventually returned to work after testing negative for COVID-19 and recovering from her illness. Although she had no previous issues regarding her work performance, she received complaints and was then terminated after returning from medical leave. McKnight filed a lawsuit alleging that her employer terminated her because she became sick and was hospitalized with COVID-19.

. . . a person with COVID-19 who is asymptomatic or whose illness results in symptoms that resolve in a matter of weeks, does not have an actual disability under the ADA.

In this case, the court held that McKnight did not have a disability under the ADA because her illness was transitory and minor and, at the time she was terminated, she did not have any disability or impairment. The court supports their findings with the recent EEOC guidance, which states that a person with COVID-19 who is asymptomatic or whose illness results in symptoms that resolve in a matter of weeks, does not have an actual disability under the ADA. For an employer to be liable for terminating an employee in this situation, an employer must perceive that their employee has a current or existing impairment at the time of the termination. In this case, even though McKnight had COVID-19 and was hospitalized for 5 days, she recovered quickly and had no further symptoms. At the time McKnight’s employer terminated her, she was not experiencing any symptoms and had tested negative, which defeated her argument that her employer discriminated against her.

Although both cases feature plaintiffs who experienced adverse employment outcomes associated with having COVID-19, the courts noted considerable differences among the facts before them, which may be helpful for individuals in similar situations. First, Matias was terminated the same day that she disclosed her symptoms and positive test, whereas McKnight had already recovered at the time of her termination. The court weighed this factor heavily in Matias, which suggests that employers who discharge employees on the same day those employees disclose symptoms that are associated with a disability can be held liable for disability discrimination. Second, not every case of COVID-19 will constitute a disability under the ADA. Because McKnight was not experiencing symptoms at the time of her termination, the court declined to categorize her COVID-19 as a disability. While these cases offer clear guidance on how the acute symptoms of COVID-19 can qualify for the ADA’s disability protections, the courts did not analyze a situation involving an employer discriminating against an employee who has long COVID. That issue will be heard separately by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in Hope v. Amazon.com Services LLC et al.

Because McKnight was not experiencing symptoms at the time of her termination, the court declined to categorize her COVID-19 as a disability.

As both employers and employees grapple with the challenge of navigating the precarious environment that the coronavirus pandemic has created, the outcomes from cases like Matias v. Terrapin and McKnight v. Renasant Bank offer guidance by more clearly articulating when an ordinary employment decision can become disability discrimination when COVID-19 is involved.