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COVID-19 Could Be A Basis For An Association Discrimination Claim Under The Americans With Disabilities Act
Jaquaishala Champion worked at Mannington Mills, a flooring manufacturing company. Champion’s brother, Alvin Evans, also worked for Mannington Mills at the same facility. On March 26, 2020, Evans started feeling ill and went to the emergency room where he was tested for COVID-19. Four days later, Evans’ test for COVID-19 came back positive, and the Director of Human Resources asked Champion if she had been near Evans on March 26 when he began feeling ill. Champion denied being around her brother at or outside of work around the time he became symptomatic. Champion had forgotten that she had a four-minute conversation with Evans before her shift while the two of them stood a few feet apart from one another in the Mannington Mills’ parking lot after work on March 26.
After several employees reported seeing Champion speak with her brother in the parking lot on March 26, Champion’s supervisor asked her if this was true. Champion told her supervisor that it was true, and her supervisor sent her home to quarantine for fourteen days. A few days later, the Director of Human Resources called Champion and told her Mannington Mills had terminated her from her position. Champion brought a claim of association discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) against Mannington Mills, which alleged that they terminated her because of her association with her brother who she contended was disabled due to COVID-19.
The ADA prohibits association discrimination, which is generally defined as the exclusion or otherwise denial of equal jobs or benefits to a qualified individual because of the known disability of an individual with whom the qualified individual is known to have a relationship. An individual has a disability if that person has a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” a record of such an impairment,” or is “regarded as having such an impairment.” For purposes of an association discrimination claim under the ADA, current federal case law requires a plaintiff to base a claim on association with an individual with a known disability – the “regarded as” basis is not sufficient.
The court determined that Champion had failed to show that Evans had a known disability (i.e., that his COVID-19 diagnosis caused a physical or mental impairment that substantially limited one or more of his major life activities), which was necessary for her claim to proceed. The court explained that a COVID-19 infection alone does not mean an individual is disabled; an individual must still allege factual matter demonstrating the presence of a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. For example, with regard to the ADA and COVID-19, this showing could be in the form of facts showing that COVID-19 substantially limited an individual’s ability to care for oneself, performing manual tasks, see, hear, eat, sleep, walk, stand, lift, bend, speak, breath, learn, read, concentrate, think, communicate, or work. Because Champion failed to make this showing, the court dismissed her claim.
Champion v. Mannington Mills, Inc. (M.D. Ga., May 10, 2021, No. 5:21-CV-00012-TES) 2021 WL 2212067.
On December 14, 2021, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) issued guidance clarifying when COVID-19 may be a disability. For more information, please see December 27, 2021, LCW special bulletin, EEOC Releases Updated Guidance Clarifying When COVID-19 May Constitute a Disability.