Middle District Court of Alabama
No. 3:21-CV-00590-RAH, 2022
February 22, 2022
Keywords: Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), COVID-19, Alabama, definition of disability, employment termination, legal authority, motion to dismiss, federal court
Summary and Facts of the Case
Lucious Brown was diagnosed with COVID-19 on June 29, 2020, while working as a Certified Nursing Assistant for Roanoke Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center (Roanoke Rehab.) in Roanoke, Alabama.
She was told by her doctor to isolate herself from others while waiting for her COVID-19 test results. Two days later, her test came back positive for COVID-19. She told her employer and was told that the policy of the business was for Brown to isolate for fourteen days.
After seven days, her supervisor told her to come to work and take another COVID-19 test. However, Ms. Brown refused because she was still isolating on her doctor’s orders. Brown’s supervisor contacted her a total of three times telling her to come into work and take another COVID-19 test. During the final contact, thirteen days into her isolation, the supervisor told her that Roanoke Rehabilitation had decided that she had voluntarily quit since she did not come back to work as instructed. Brown was fired and then tested positive for COVID-19 a second time.
The District Court denied the Roanoke Rehabilitation’s motion to dismiss Ms. Brown’s ADA claim.
Issue of the Case
- Did Lucious Brown have a COVID-19 disability claim under the ADA?
Arguments and Analysis
1. The Court first had to determine if Brown could show that she had a right to sue under the ADA.
Brown claimed that she experienced a disability or was regarded as having a disability, because she had a severe case of COVID-19.
To show an obvious case of discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Ms. Brown must show:
- that she has a disability,
- that she was qualified for her job,
- that her employer is a covered entity under the ADA, and
- her employer discriminated against her by firing her because of her disability.
2. The Court had to decide if Brown was disabled or regarded as disabled due to COVID-19.
The ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) asks courts to see “disability” in a broad way. Brown argued that she proved she had a disability, and she was regarded as having a disability by her employer, the first and third definitions of disability.
To decide if Brown had a disability or was regarded as having one, the Court first considered if Brown’s claim of having an actual disability falls under the ADA because of her extreme COVID-19 symptoms. Her symptoms included high blood pressure, “brain fog”, severe fatigue, difficulty breathing, and fever.
The ADA says that disability is a “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” The ADA says that major life activities include breathing, concentrating, thinking, and working.
The Court decided that Brown showed enough facts to prove she had a physical or mental impairment from COVID-19.
In making this decision, the Court looked at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) guidance that says COVID-19, under certain circumstances, can be considered a disability under the ADA. Roanoke Rehabilitation argued that two court cases were similar to Brown’s, to persuade the Court that firing an employee with a COVID-19 infection cannot be the basis of an ADA disability discrimination claim. The Court disagreed saying the other two cases included a plaintiff that did not claim to have symptoms. Therefore, the Court decided that Brown could allege she was discriminated against.
3. The Court looked at Brown’s claim that she was regarded by Roanoke as having a disability.
Roanoke Rehabilitation argued that Brown could not be regarded as having a disability because COVID-19 is only expected to last six or fewer months, so it is a minor and temporary impairment. However, the Court believed that since Brown claimed she was fired because her employer saw her as having a disability, the perception of Brown having a disability led to the discriminatory firing.
4. The Court looked at Roanoke’s argument that Brown’s diagnosis of COVID-19 was temporary and minor.
The Court ruled that Brown was not required to defend facts, suggesting that the transitory and minor defense fails.
Further, the Court said that Roanoke’s claim that Brown’s symptoms were only “transitory”, or temporary, was not correct.. The Court believed that Brown’s apparent symptoms were not minor.
5. The Court found that Roanoke’s arguments were better addressed at the summary judgment stage of the legal proceedings.
The District Court ruled against Roanoke Rehabilitation Rule 12(b)(6) and the case was dismissed.
Policy and Practice
Depending on the severity and duration of symptoms, it is possible that COVID-19 and post-COVID conditions may qualify as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
- Full Case: Brown v. Roanoke Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center, No. 3:21-CV-00590-RAH, 2022 U.S. Dis. Ct., Middle District Alabama, WL 532936
(Eastern Division. February 22, 2022)
These materials do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in any individual case. Please consult an attorney licensed in your state for legal advice and/or representation. These materials were prepared by the legal research staff of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University in partnership with the Southeast ADA Center to highlight legal and policy developments relevant to civil rights protections and the impact of court decisions in the Southeast Region under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These materials are based on federal disability rights laws and court decisions in effect at the time of publication. Federal and state disability rights law can change at any time. In addition, state and local laws and regulations may provide different or additional protections. Materials are intended solely as informal guidance, and are neither a determination of your legal rights nor responsibilities under the ADA or other federal, state, and local laws, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. The accuracy of any information contained herein is not warranted. Any links to external websites are provided as a courtesy and are not intended to nor do they constitute an endorsement of the linked materials.