- A federal judge granted manufacturer Mannington Mills' motion to dismiss a Georgia-based employee's suit alleging that the company discriminated against her based on her association with her brother, who tested positive for COVID-19 (Champion v. Mannington Mills, No. 5:21-cv-00012 (M.D. Ga. May 10, 2021)).
- The employee and her brother worked at the same facility. After her brother tested positive for COVID-19, the employee was sent home by her supervisor — who determined that the employee had an in-person conversation with her brother prior to his diagnosis — and was told to quarantine for 14 days. Days later, the employer's HR director "accused [the employee] of dishonesty" because she failed to disclose the conversation with her brother when the HR director asked if she had contact with him at the time that he was symptomatic. She was terminated the following day.
- The employee sued, alleging that Mannington Mills violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the district court held that the employee failed to show that the employer regarded her brother as "disabled" as defined under the law.
The case touches on a common question among employers, particularly early in the pandemic: Is COVID-19 a disability under the ADA? To this point, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has not said that COVID-19 is a disability, with officials instead stating that the answer is unclear.
The ADA's association provision prohibits employers from discriminating against employees and job applicants based on their relationship or association with a person who has a disability, regardless of whether the employee or applicant has a disability, according to EEOC guidance.
This provision was central to the employee's argument in Champion, but the district court listed three ways in which the plaintiff failed to meet the law's standard. For one, the employee failed to show that her brother was substantially limited in his ability to work due to his COVID-19 infection, the court said.
Although the employee did argue that her brother "was substantially limited in his ability to communicate" due to his infection, the court said the ADA does not include in-person communication as a form of major life activity under the law's definition.
The plaintiff also did not succeed under the law's "regarded as" prong, in part because an association discrimination claim "cannot be based on a plaintiff's association with a person merely regarded as disabled," the court said.
"Just because Mannington followed the relevant public health guidance when it sent Evans home from work due to his possible COVID-19 infection and required him to stay home for an unspecified period of time does not mean Mannington regarded him as disabled," the court said. "To hold otherwise would mean that every person in the United States who was (or who may be) sent home upon feeling sick during this pandemic, or was asked to stay home once testing positive or being exposed to COVID-19, would be disabled for the purposes of the ADA and every such employer covered by the ADA potentially liable."