Virus ADA Ruling May Prove To Be Double-Edged Sword

By: Jonathan R. Mook

Questions concerning the intersection of COVID-19 and the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act — not least of which is the basic question of whether infection with the COVID-19 virus constitutes a disability covered by the statute — continue to play out in the courts.

The answer to that question will govern the degree to which employers will need to take into account the nondiscrimination and reasonable accommodation requirements of the statute in dealing with the continued impact of COVID-19 in the workplace.

On Sept. 16, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania addressed the question in Matias v. Terrapin House, allowing a fired worker’s COVID-19-related disability claim to proceed.

In doing so, the court held that the plaintiff’s complaint sufficiently alleged that her former employer regarded her as disabled due to her testing positive for COVID-19.

While the court reached the correct result, practitioners should bear in mind that in addressing the elements of a “regarded as” disability claim, the court relied upon outdated case law to consider a factor that Congress eliminated in 2008 and that no longer needs to be established.

COVID-19 and the Definition of Disability
In considering the degree to which the ADA may provide legal protections to persons infected with COVID-19, it is helpful to bear in mind that the statute incorporates a three pronged definition of “disability”:

  • “A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities” — the actual disability prong;
  • “A record of such an impairment” — the record of a disability prong; or
  • “Being regarded as having such an impairment” — the regarded-as disability prong.[1]

So far, court decisions indicate that being infected with the COVID-19 virus, in and of itself, is not an actual disability under the statute because it does not substantially limit a major life activity.[2]

For example, on May 10, in Champion v. Mannington Mills Inc., the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia addressed an ADA suit brought by an employee who claimed Jonathan Mook that she lost her job because of her association with her brother, who worked at the same Mannington facility. Her brother had tested positive for COVID-19 and missed several days of work when he was required to quarantine.

In dismissing the lawsuit, the court found that the plaintiff’s brother was not disabled because missing work and being unable to maintain in-person communication while subject to quarantine did not rise to the level of substantially limiting any major life activity.[3]

Therefore, her claim for association discrimination could not stand. However, the rise in the number of individuals suffering from the lingering long-term health effects of the COVID-19 virus, so-called long-haul COVID-19, may change the calculus.

It is becoming increasingly likely that courts will recognize that having severe long-haul COVID-19 can result in a substantial limitation of a person’s major life activities.

Indeed, President Joe Biden has indicated that may well be the case when, in a recent speech on the 31st anniversary of the signing of the ADA, he stated that many Americans who seemingly recover from the virus still face lingering challenges like breathing problems, brain fog, chronic pain, and fatigue. These conditions can
sometimes … rise to the level of a disability.[4]

In guidance issued on Sept. 9, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission echoed the president’s remarks by recognizing that long COVID-19 may constitute an ADA disability.[5]

Importance of Regarded-As-Disabled Prong
Importantly, demonstrating that COVID-19 substantially limits a major life activity and, hence, constitutes an actual disability under the ADA is not the only way that persons infected with COVID-19 may come within the protections of the statute.

The actions of an employer may render persons infected with the COVID-19 virus disabled within the regarded-as prong of the definition of disability.

That is because to be regarded as disabled, there is no requirement that the employer perceive the employee’s physical or mental impairment as substantially limiting a major life activity.

All the employee needs to establish is that he or she has been subjected to an action prohibited under the act because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity.[6]

When the ADA was initially passed in 1990, the statute contained a more restricted definition of what constitutes a regarded-as disability. Thus, under the original statute, an employer had to perceive an individual’s physical or mental impairment as substantially limiting a major life activity.[7]

That narrow definition was changed, however, by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, which greatly expanded the scope of coverage under the statute and, in particular, the regarded as definition of disability.[8]

Thus, at the present time, where an employer takes an adverse job action against an employee due to an actual or perceived impairment, such as COVID-19, the employee will come within the regarded-as definition of disabled, unless the employer can demonstrate that the impairment is both transitory and minor.[9]

And, the employer must make this showing on an objective, not subjective, basis.[10]

Matias v. Terrapin House
How a regarded-as COVID-19 disability claim may arise can be seen in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania’s recent decision in Matias v. Terrapin House.[11]

The case was brought against Terrapin House, a residential facility for individuals with autism, by a former direct support professional, Ninoshka Matias, who claimed that she was terminated after informing Terrapin of her positive COVID-19 test results.[12]

In her suit, Matias claimed that Terrapin’s decision to terminate her was motivated by her request for COVID-19 leave, which Matias argued constituted disability discrimination.

In moving to dismiss Matias’ lawsuit, Terrapin argued, in part, that she had failed to sufficiently allege a claim for regarded-as disability discrimination because the purported disability — infection with COVID-19 — was transitory and minor.

U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Leeson Jr., however, disagreed and allowed Matias’ ADA claim for regarded-as disability discrimination to proceed.

In analyzing whether Terrapin regarded Matias as disabled, Judge Leeson looked to guidance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Justice that COVID-19 “is a physiological condition affecting one or more body systems,” and, accordingly, may be a “physical or mental impairment under the ADA.”[13]

In his opinion, Judge Leeson correctly cited to the ADAAA’s definition of a regarded-as disability as not depending upon “whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity.”[14]

Nonetheless, relying upon case law decided under the pre-ADAAA definition of disability, Judge Leeson went on to consider whether Terrapin believed that Matias’ impairment substantially limited a major life activity.[15]

In that regard, Judge Leeson noted that Matias’ complaint alleged that days before she was fired, she had “informed Terrapin that she felt like she was losing her senses of taste and smell.”[16]

As Judge Leeson explained, these are symptoms common to certain forms of COVID-19 that can carry longer-term impairment of major life function, and therefore, Judge Leeson concluded that “Matias … plausibly alleged that Terrapin regarded her as having an impairment that can substantially limit major life functions.”[17]

Judge Leeson further found that Matias had sufficiently alleged that Terrapin had taken an action prohibited by the statute — i.e., termination — because of Matias’ physical impairment, i.e., infection with COVID-19.

As Judge Leeson emphasized, Matias was terminated on a Sunday “immediately following her disclosure to Terrapin that same day that she was COVID-19 positive.”[18]

Accordingly, Judge Leeson reasoned that the immediate temporal proximity between Matias’ disclosure of her COVID-19 symptoms and her positive test result and her termination raises a strong inference that Terrapin regarded her as disabled.[19]

Is COVID-19 Transitory and Minor?
Having determined that Matias allegedly had been subjected to an action prohibited by the ADA due to her infection with COVID-19, the court next turned to Terrapin’s defense that Matias’ ADA claim still should be dismissed because her infection was transitory and minor.

As Judge Leeson explained, the ADA does not provide relief for an adverse employment action where the employer perceives the employee to have a disability that is objectively transitory and minor.[20]

To assess whether that was the case here, Judge Leeson assumed arguendo that Terrapin could establish that infection with COVID-19 is transitory, and thus, he focused on “whether COVID-19 is ‘minor’ as the term is contemplated in the ADAAA.”[21]

In arguing that it is, Terrapin contended that it could not have perceived Matias as having anything other than a minor condition.[22]

But Judge Leeson emphasized that “Terrapin’s subjective belief that Matias’ COVID-19 [positive test] result was minor does not carry its burden to establish the defense.”[23]

Rather, it is objective evidence that governs the analysis. In undertaking an objective analysis, Judge Leeson compared the hospitalization and mortality rates of the COVID-19 pandemic with those of the seasonal flu, which federal courts have viewed as being “quintessentially transitory and minor.”[24]

In making this comparison, Judge Leeson concluded that the seasonal flu “pale[s] in comparison to … COVID-19.”[25] Looking to studies and reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Judge Leeson found:

Whereas an average of 422,000 people in the United States are hospitalized each year due to the seasonal flu, domestic COVID-19 hospitalizations between August 1, 2020 and September 10, 2021 totaled over 2,876,000.[26]

Additionally, “[w]hen viewed from the perspective of mortality, COVID-19 proves to be more deadly than the seasonal flu.” He noted that there were an “estimated 61,000 domestic deaths due to the 2017-2018 seasonal flu, the highest recorded in the decade preceding 2020.”

Moreover, as of mid-September 2021, Judge Leeson pointed out that COVID-19 was deemed “responsible for more than 660,000 deaths in the United States.”[27]

“Accordingly,” Judge Leeson determined, “viewed objectively, COVID-19 is not ‘minor.'”[28]

Thus, the court held that Matias had sufficiently alleged that Terrapin regarded her as disabled under the ADA “when it terminated her the same day that she disclosed her positive COVID-19 test result,” and that “Terrapin fail[ed] to meet its burden to establish that COVID-19 represents a transitory and minor impairment so as to exempt it from
coverage under the ‘regarded as’ provisions” of the ADA.[29]

Lessons From Matias — and a Warning

The Matias decision serves to remind ADA practitioners that even if infection with COVID-19, in and of itself, may not rise to the level of an actual disability, if an employer takes an adverse job action against an employee after testing positive for COVID-19, that employee could well have a regarded-as disability claim.

Moreover, Judge Leeson’s opinion sets forth a solid factual basis as to why COVID-19 is not a minor impairment, even if it may be transitory. It is likely, therefore, that the opinion will be cited as persuasive authority by plaintiffs’ counsel who are pursuing COVID-19 regarded-as disability discrimination lawsuits. Nonetheless, citation to Matias may be a double-edged sword.

That’s because the opinion erroneously cites to, and relies upon, case law interpreting the narrow, superseded definition of being regarded as disabled, which requires a plaintiff additionally to show that his or her actual or perceived impairment was viewed by the employer as substantially limiting a major life activity. In short, Matias is a case where the court reached the correct result, but in doing so, made some missteps as to the proper interpretation of the law.

Accordingly, any citation to Matias should be done with care, recognizing that the court’s
citation to, and reliance upon, case law addressing the original version of the ADA no longer
is good law.