Can COVID-19 Be a Disability Under Antidiscrimination Laws? At Least One Court Says “Yes”

In what may be the first in a wave of decisions concerning COVID-19 and disability bias, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama determined that a nursing assistant who was fired for following COVID-19 quarantine protocols after testing positive and presenting symptoms can pursue her disability bias lawsuit against her former employer.

In this case, the plaintiff had tested positive for COVID-19 and was symptomatic resulting in her doctor advising, consistent with then-applicable CDC guidance and her employer’s then-applicable policy, that she self-isolate for fourteen (14) days.  Before her isolation period ended, her employer demanded that she return to work to take another COVID-19 test.  The plaintiff refused three (3) such requests and was fired on the thirteenth day of her fourteen-day isolation period.

The Court held that the terminated nursing assistant sufficiently asserted that her symptoms could constitute an actual disability under the ADA, or that her employer regarded her as disabled allowing her lawsuit to move forward.  While the Court engaged in a traditional ADA analysis, the decision does provide guidance to employers on how COVID-related accommodation requests should be handled.  Notably, the Court viewed this particular plaintiff’s symptoms as the critical factor in determining that plaintiff had met her burdens of this stage of the litigation.

The EEOC has stated that COVID-19 may qualify as a disability, and, as this decision illustrates, when an employee is presenting symptoms, the likelihood of COVID-19 qualifying as disability under the ADA increases.  Employers presented with COVID-related accommodation requests should not dismiss them out of hand and should instead engage in the interactive process and evaluate the specific request and the specific nature of the employee’s condition.  We can assist in this regard and would be happy to discuss specific situations in light of the Court’s analysis.