When is COVID-19 Considered a “Disability” Under the ADA?

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By Kathleen J. Jennings (kjj@wimlaw.com)

Today, the EEOC issued some new guidance that purports to clarify circumstances in which COVID-19 may or may not cause effects sufficient to meet the definition of “actual” or “record of” a disability for various purposes under Title I, as well as section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act. However, finding clarity on anything related to the ADA is a challenge, to say the least.

As an initial matter, the EEOC tells us that COVID-19 is not always considered to be a “disability.” Rather, each case must be examined on its own facts.

The ADA’s three-part definition of disability applies to COVID-19 in the same way it applies to any other medical condition. A person can be an individual with a “disability” for purposes of the ADA in one of three ways:

  1. “Actual” Disability: The person has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity (such as walking, talking, seeing, hearing, or learning, or operation of a major bodily function);
  2. “Record of” a Disability: The person has a history or “record of” an actual disability (such as cancer that is in remission); or
  3. “Regarded as” an Individual with a Disability: The person is subject to an adverse action because of an individual’s impairment or an impairment the employer believes the individual has, whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity, unless the impairment is objectively both transitory (lasting or expected to last six months or less) and minor.

The ADA uses a case-by-case approach to determine if an applicant or employee meets any one of the three above definitions of “disability.”

How does this apply to COVID-19? Depending on the specific facts involved in an individual employee’s condition, a person with COVID-19 has an actual disability if the person’s medical condition or any of its symptoms is a “physical or mental” impairment that “substantially limits one or more major life activities.” An individualized assessment is necessary to determine whether the effects of a person’s COVID-19 substantially limit a major life activity. This will always be a case-by-case determination that applies existing legal standards to the facts of a particular individual’s circumstances.

Keep in mind that a person infected with the virus causing COVID-19 who is asymptomatic or a person whose COVID-19 results in mild symptoms similar to those of the common cold or flu that resolve in a matter of weeks—with no other consequences—will not have an actual disability within the meaning of the ADA.

Examples of Individuals with an Impairment that Substantially Limits a Major Life Activity:

  • An individual diagnosed with COVID-19 who experiences ongoing but intermittent multiple-day headaches, dizziness, brain fog, and difficulty remembering or concentrating, which the employee’s doctor attributes to the virus, is substantially limited in neurological and brain function, concentrating, and/or thinking, among other major life activities.
  • An individual diagnosed with COVID-19 who initially receives supplemental oxygen for breathing difficulties and has shortness of breath, associated fatigue, and other virus-related effects that last, or are expected to last, for several months, is substantially limited in respiratory function, and possibly major life activities involving exertion, such as walking.
  • An individual who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 experiences heart palpitations, chest pain, shortness of breath, and related effects due to the virus that last, or are expected to last, for several months. The individual is substantially limited in cardiovascular function and circulatory function, among others.
  • An individual diagnosed with “long COVID,” who experiences COVID-19-related intestinal pain, vomiting, and nausea that linger for many months, even if intermittently, is substantially limited in gastrointestinal function, among other major life activities, and therefore has an actual disability under the ADA.

Examples of Individuals with an Impairment that Does Not Substantially Limit a Major Life Activity:

  • An individual who is diagnosed with COVID-19 who experiences congestion, sore throat, fever, headaches, and/or gastrointestinal discomfort, which resolve within several weeks, but experiences no further symptoms or effects, is not substantially limited in a major bodily function or other major life activity, and therefore does not have an actual disability under the ADA. This is so even though this person is subject to CDC guidance for isolation during the period of infectiousness.
  • An individual who is infected with the virus causing COVID-19 but is asymptomatic—that is, does not experience any symptoms or effects—is not substantially limited in a major bodily function or other major life activity, and therefore does not have an actual disability under the ADA. This is the case even though this person is still subject to CDC guidance for isolation during the period of infectiousness.
  • As noted above, even if the symptoms of COVID-19 occur intermittently, they will be deemed to substantially limit a major life activity if they are substantially limiting when active, based on an individualized assessment.

To further complicate matters, in some cases, regardless of whether an individual’s initial case of COVID-19 itself constitutes an actual disability, an individual’s COVID-19 may end up causing impairments that are themselves disabilities under the ADA. For example:

  • An individual who had COVID-19 develops heart inflammation. This inflammation itself may be an impairment that substantially limits a major bodily function, such as the circulatory function, or other major life activity, such as lifting.
  • During the course of COVID-19, an individual suffers an acute ischemic stroke. Due to the stroke, the individual may be substantially limited in neurological and brain (or cerebrovascular) function.
  • After an individual’s COVID-19 resolves, the individual develops diabetes attributed to the COVID-19. This individual should easily be found to be substantially limited in the major life activity of endocrine function.

In some cases, an individual’s COVID-19 may also worsen the individual’s pre-existing condition that was not previously substantially limiting, making that impairment now substantially limiting. For example:

  • An individual initially has a heart condition that is not substantially limiting. The individual is infected with COVID-19. The COVID-19 worsens the person’s heart condition so that the condition now substantially limits the person’s circulatory function.

The situations in which an employer might “regard” an applicant or employee with COVID-19 as an individual with a disability are varied. Some examples include:

  • An employer would regard an employee as having a disability if the employer fires the individual because the employee had symptoms of COVID-19, which, although minor, lasted or were expected to last more than six months. The employer could not show that the impairment was both transitory and minor.
  • An employer would regard an employee as having a disability if the employer fires the individual for having COVID-19, and the COVID-19, although lasting or expected to last less than six months, caused non-minor symptoms. In these circumstances, the employer could not show that the impairment was both transitory and minor.

It is possible that an employer may not have engaged in unlawful discrimination under the ADA even if the employer took an adverse action based on an impairment. For example, an individual still needs to be qualified for the job held or desired. Additionally, in some instances, an employer may have a defense to an action taken on the basis of the impairment. For example, the ADA’s “direct threat” defense could permit an employer to require an employee with COVID-19 or its symptoms to refrain from physically entering the workplace during the CDC-recommended period of isolation, due to the significant risk of substantial harm to the health of others.

Of course, an employer risks violating the ADA if it relies on myths, fears, or stereotypes about a condition to disallow the employee’s return to work once the employee is no longer infectious and, therefore, medically able to return without posing a direct threat to others.

The Takeaway: Most people who become sick with COVID-19 are not going to have a “disability” as defined by the ADA. However, there is a small subset of people, such as the “COVID long-haulers” who may be affected by COVID-19 to such an extent that they have a disability, as defined by the ADA, and therefore, those folks are protected from unlawful discrimination. This should be determined on a case-by-case basis.

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.

Copyright 2021 Kathleen 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.

Lawfully Handling Employee Mental Health Issues

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By Kathleen J. Jennings (kjj@wimlaw.com)

Thanks to the effects of a worldwide pandemic and revelations by high profile athletes, the issue of mental health is being openly discussed. Such discussions may even happen in your workplace. So how do you deal with employees who reveal that they are struggling with mental health issues, either their own or those of a close family member?

As a starting point, employers that are covered by the Americans WIth Disabilities Act (ADA) cannot discriminate against employees who suffer from mental health conditions that would be considered “disabilities.” Morever, the ADA prohibits employment discrimination against a person, whether or not he or she has a disability, because of his or her known relationship or association with a person with a known disability.

The ADA also protects employees from harassment on the basis of their mental health disabilities. Additionally, the ADA imposes a duty on covered employers to determine whether they can provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees. An employer is not required to provide an accommodation that would impose an undue hardship.

These are complicated issues, and the EEOC has provided detailed (albeit not up to date–it was issued in 1997) Enforcement Guidance on the Americans With Disabilities Act and Psychiatric Disabilities. More recently, in 2016, the EEOC issued a technical assistance document targeted toward employees entitled “Depression, PTSD, & Other Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace: Your Legal Rights.” This is something your employees may review if they feel like they are not being treated lawfully, so it is worth the time for employers to review it as well.

Every situation is different, so an employer should deal with employees with mental health disabilities on a case by case basis and with the assistance of qualified counsel. However, the following are some general guidelines:

  • If an employee reveals that he or she has been diagnosed with a mental illness, that information must be kept confidential.
  • There are very limited circumstances under which an employer can ask an employee if he or she is mentally ill. Before making such an inquiry, consult with counsel.
  • It is inappropriate for anyone to refer to another employee as “crazy,” “nutcase,” “cuckoo for coco puffs,” “insane,” or other types of derogatory words and phrases. If the use of such terms is considered to be severe or pervasive, the employer could be liable for harassment. Your harassment prevention training should cover this issue.
  • Some examples of possible accommodations for employees with mental health disabilities include altered break and work schedules (e.g., scheduling work around therapy appointments), quiet office space or devices that create a quiet work environment, changes in supervisory methods (e.g., written instructions from a supervisor who usually does not provide them), specific shift assignments, and permission to work from home.
  • The Family and Medical Leave Act may come into play, if the employer and employee are covered by it.

Most of all, a little compassion goes a long way.

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.

Copyright 2021 Kathleen 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.

Maintaining the Confidentiality of Employee Health Information During the Pandemic

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In order to take the CDC recommended precautions to minimize the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, employers must gather information about employee health. What can they gather, and what should they do with it? For answers, we look to the the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA prohibits employee disability-related inquiries or medical examinations unless they are job-related and consistent with business necessity. Generally, a disability-related inquiry or medical examination of an employee is job-related and consistent with business necessity when an employer has a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that:

  •  An employee’s ability to perform essential job functions will be impaired by a medical condition; or   
  • An employee will pose a direct threat due to a medical condition.

 This reasonable belief “must be based on objective evidence obtained, or reasonably available to the employer, prior to making a disability-related inquiry or requiring a medical examination.

Not surprisingly, the EEOC has concluded that based on guidance of the CDC and public health authorities as of March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic meets the direct threat standard, which justifies making inquiries to determine if employees are infected with COVID-19.  Therefore, employers may ask employees who report feeling ill at work, or who call in sick, questions about their symptoms to determine if they have or may have COVID-19.  Currently these symptoms include, for example, fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, or sore throat.

Employers may also receive information from employees regarding certain health conditions that may make them or close family members more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19.

What’s an employer to do with all of this health information? Keep it confidential.

The ADA requires that all medical information about a particular employee be stored separately from the employee’s personnel file, thus limiting access to this confidential information. An employer may store all medical information related to COVID-19 in existing medical files. This includes an employee’s statement that he has the disease or suspects he has the disease, or the employer’s notes or other documentation from questioning an employee about symptoms.

It is also a good idea to limit access to confidential employee health information to a few trusted management level employees, such as a Human Resources Manager or Safety Manager, and if your company has one, a company nurse. Remember, if someone doesn’t know about an employee’s health condition, she can’t use that knowledge as a basis to discriminate against the employee.

What happens if employees ask whether a certain employee has tested positive for COVID-19? The correct response is to say that you cannot give out confidential health information. Even if it is a small workplace, and folks may guess that the employee who has been out for 14 days may have COVID-19, do not be tempted to confirm any rumors.

Keep quiet, and keep washing those hands!

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.

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.