Federal Appeals Court Rejects ADA Claim Based Upon “Future Disability”

In a case discussed previously, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit based upon a Massage Envy employee’s decision to travel to Africa during the Ebola outbreak. The employer feared the employee would contract Ebola or that the travel to that area would scare potential clients. As the court stated:

The terms of the ADA protect persons who experience discrimination because of a current, past, or perceived disability—not because of a potential future disability that a healthy person may experience later. Accordingly, we affirm the district court’s final judgment in favor of defendant Massage Envy.

The court explained the EEOC’s claim as follows:

The EEOC suggested that Lowe’s interfered-with ADA rights were: (1) the right to a reasonable accommodation if Lowe actually developed Ebola; and (2) the right to associate with disabled persons, i.e., people in Ghana with Ebola.

However, neither Lowe nor the EEOC provided any authority for the proposition that Lowe’s prospect of contracting Ebola protected her under the ADA. The facts of the case, moreover, showed that nobody in Ghana developed Ebola during the time that Lowe traveled there. The court therefore concluded that:

For several reasons, we must conclude that the disability definition in the ADA does not cover this case where an employer perceives a person to be presently healthy with only a potential to become ill and disabled in the future due to the voluntary conduct of overseas travel.

The court also affirmed the dismissal of the ADA “association” claim based upon the allegation that Lowe was fired because she would supposedly “associate” with unknown “disabled persons” who had Ebola in Ghana:

In this case, the EEOC has alleged an association even “looser” than the physician and patient relationship in Freilich. Here, the EEOC’s entire claim is based on Massage Envy’s concern that Lowe might come across some unknown person with Ebola while traveling in Ghana. But the EEOC has not cited to, nor are we aware of, a single case involving an association discrimination claim premised on an employer’s belief about an employee’s potential casual association with unknown disabled people.

In closing the Eleventh Circuit reminds all employers that:

As we have repeatedly and emphatically held, an employer may fire an employee for a good reason, a bad reason, a reason based on erroneous facts, or for no reason at all, as long as its action is not for a discriminatory reason contrary to federal law.

Thus, courts do not review the wisdom (or the optics) of a firing, but strictly limit themselves to the statutory text in evaluating an allegedly wrongful termination.

The case is EEOC v. STME, 18-12121 (11th Cir. Sept. 12, 2019).