- An employee who was terminated because her employer feared she would contract Ebola during a trip to Ghana was not protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. STME, LLC, Nos. 18-11121 and 18-12277 (11th Cir. Sept. 12, 2019)).
- The ADA protects against bias on the basis of a current, past or perceived disability — but not "a potential future disability that a healthy person may experience later," said the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
- The 11th Circuit agreed with the district court that the employee was not "regarded as" having a disability at the time of her termination and was also not perceived as having an association with any person disabled by Ebola. Accordingly, it upheld the district court's dismissal of the claim.
The ADA protects qualified individuals with a disability — a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities — from workplace and other forms of bias. As this case illustrates, however, its protections go beyond that.
First, the ADA bans discrimination against a qualified person on the basis of a perceived disability, whether or not the person is actually considered to have a disability under the ADA. This is known as "regarded as" discrimination. In this case, the 11th Circuit concluded that "regarded as" protection does not extend to prohibiting bias on the basis of a theoretical future disability (even though the district court noted that the employer's actions were "deplorable").
Second, the ADA also prevents bias against a worker with a "known relationship or association" with someone who has a disability. In one recent case, a hospital administrator claimed bias on the basis of her relationship with her husband, who had colon cancer.
Regardless of whether an ADA-protected condition actually exists, employers and managers need to be sensitive to situations that may involve the ADA. According to David K. Fram, the director of ADA and EEO services for the National Employment Law Institute, managers should be trained to be attuned to employees with disabilities, to spend time and effort finding reasonable accommodations, and to document the steps taken to assist them.
An employer's approach and sensitivity (or lack thereof) can mean the difference between a successful interactive process and an ADA bias or retaliation lawsuit.