An interesting ruling came down this week from the Federal Court for the Middle District of Georgia regarding Covid and the ADA.
Mannington Mills is an international company that makes fine floor tiles with several plants, including one in Madison, Georgia. In March of 2020, an employee started feeling poorly, went to the hospital and tested positive for Covid19. The HR department at Mannington then started to interview people regarding possible close contacts. That’s when things got interesting.
One of the people interviewed was the gentleman’s sister, who also worked at Mannington. They asked her if she had visited his work station during his last shift, and she said no. They then asked her if she had any other close contacts with him, and again she said no. The next day, however, HR called her and said a few witnesses had seen her talking with her brother for several minutes, while he sat in the car and she stood just outside the open window.
She claimed she forgot about that conversation and apologized and was subsequently sent home to quarantine for 14 days. She claimed in later court filings this action made her feel “diseased and discarded” which, if nothing else, is an excellent use of alliteration. The following day, HR called her and told her they felt she had been dishonest with them regarding the conversation, rather than the innocent forgetting she professed. One day later she was fired from Mannington Mills.
The woman sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), claiming she was fired because she was the sister of someone who had tested positive for Covid19. Remember, this case originated in March of 2020, when people were on edge about Covid and so much was unknown. Even given that, her claims seem legally dubious.
The ADA was passed during the heights of the AIDS epidemic in our country. It was an unknown disease, and a scary one. There was a powerful social stigma associated with having AIDS and, in the early stages of the epidemic, there was no cure or effective treatment. People weren’t just being fired for having AIDS – they were, in some cases, being fired because the employer THOUGHT they MIGHT have AIDS. In this scenario, the ADA covers them if they are perceived to have the disability (even if they do not) and face discrimination based on that assumption.
I don’t think that argument applies here. Covid19 is indeed serious. Approximately 1.6% of the people in Georgia who tested positive for Covid ended up dying of it. But for the overwhelming majority of people who contracted Covid, they were sidelined for a couple of weeks and then recovered. Many were asymptomatic. By comparison, when AIDS came along, contracting it was assumed to be a death sentence.
In the 40 years since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic (as of 2018) approximately 700,000 Americans have died of AIDS, which is strikingly similar to the amount of people killed by Covid in the past 18 months (682,569, as of this writing). But contracting a disease – even one that can be fatal – doesn’t automatically (or even generally) make you a person with a disability. And yes, while people in 2020 or 2021 would keep their distance from someone who has Covid, there is simply no comparison between this type of public health decision and the stigma attached to contracting AIDS 30 years ago. Her feeling “diseased and discarded” because she was asked to quarantine doesn’t measure up.
The plaintiff’s brother got Covid. There is no indication that Mannington Mills fired him for it. And while it is possible he could have long-term effects from Covid that might render him a person with a disability someday, there’s no indication that this is the situation now. Absent evidence to the contrary, he appears to NOT meet the definition of a person with a disabilty under the law. And, even if he did, there is no indication in that the employer fired his sister (and not him) because he got Covid.
It’s possible she may have a case for wrongful termination. I’m not a lawyer, but getting canned for forgetting you talked to your brother seems a tad harsh. But her brother getting Covid doesn’t make her a person with a disability, or give her coverage under the ADA. The case was dismissed.