Is a Genetic Mutation a Disability? The Sixth Circuit Says Maybe.

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Is a genetic mutation disability?  Specifically,  is the genetic mutation known as a BRCA1 mutation (Angelina Jolie revealed that she has this mutation) a “disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) even though the employee has not yet developed breast cancer?  In a case of first impression, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals said maybe.  (Darby v. Childvine, Inc., No. 19-4214 (6th Cir. June 30, 2020)).

Sherryl Darby underwent a double mastectomy following diagnosis of the growth of abnormal pre-cancerous cells along with the BRAC1 genetic mutation that contributes to abnormal cell growth. Invoking the Americans with Disabilities Act and Ohio law, Darby alleged she was discriminated against when her employer terminated her employment upon learning of her condition. (Interestingly, she did not bring a claim under GINA.) The district court dismissed her claims, concluding that Darby’s genetic mutation had not yet manifested into a disability cognizable under the ADA. The Sixth Circuit reversed the decision below and held that Ms. Darby’s allegations were sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.

The key issue was whether Darby’s genetic mutation, which had not manifested in cancer, constitutes a “disability” under the ADA. Under the ADA, a disability as defined as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more [of her] major life activities.” 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1)(A).  

Darby argued that her impairment substantially limits her normal cell growth as compared to the general population due to both a genetic mutation (BRCA1) that limits her normal cell growth and a medical diagnosis of abnormal epithelial cell growth serious enough to warrant a double mastectomy.  For purposes of Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the Court agreed and found that Darby’s gene mutation and abnormal cell growth, though not cancerous, qualify as a disability under the ADA. See Lonergan v. Fla. Dep’t of Corr., 623 F. App’x 990 , 993 (11th Cir. 2015) (finding plaintiff successfully alleged a substantial limitation in major life activity of normal cell growth in part due to allegation of “abnormal growth of pre-cancerous cells”). 

The Court further noted that Darby’s claims are entitled to further consideration through discovery: “Particularly with less-well-understood medical issues like the BRCA1 genetic mutation and its effects on “abnormal epithelial cells,” expert medical testimony may help reveal whether Darby’s condition “substantially limits” normal cell growth.”

The Court also stated that a genetic mutation that merely predisposes an individual to other conditions, such as cancer, is not itself a disability under the ADA. The terms of the Act do not reach that far. See Shell v. Burlington N. Santa Fe Ry. Co., 941 F.3d 331 , 335-36 (7th Cir. 2019) (finding no ADA disability where plaintiff based his claim on conditions he feared he would develop as a result of obesity). In other words, in order to rise to the level of a disability, a genetic mutation must have some immediate effect on a person’s body that substantially limit a major life activity.  

The takeaway:  This is an area of the law that is still developing. Thus, each situation must be considered by an employer on a case by case basis.  In order to avoid potential liability under the ADA, an employer must be extremely cautious in its treatment of any employee who presents medical issues related to a genetic predisposition or mutation.  

Kathleen J. Jennings is an attorney licensed to practice law in Georgia and New York. She graduated from Cornell University, College of Arts & Sciences, with distinction and New York University School of Law. She is a principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. and defends employers in employment matters, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, Wage and Hour, OSHA, restrictive covenants, and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters. She can be contacted at kjj@wimlaw.com.

©2020 Kathleen J. Jennings

The materials available at this blog site are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this Web site or any of the e-mail links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship between Kathleen J. Jennings and the user or browser. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author.

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