Ask a Wrongful Termination Attorney: Out of Africa … and Into the Unemployment Line

In a fascinating recent case brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), a Tampa, Florida court was asked to decide whether an employer had violated the ADA when it fired an employee who had planned a trip to Ghana in West Africa because the owner believed the employee “would be infected with Ebola if she traveled to Ghana,” and would infect her coworkers and clients upon her return.  Is this a wrongful termination?  The wrongful termination attorneys at Gold Star Law will analyze.

The ADA prohibits disability discrimination, and even discrimination based on a perceived disability.  When Congress broadened the ADA in 2008, it specifically expanded its protections to include employees who were not actually impaired or whose impairments would not constitute a disability, but who were perceived to be impaired by their employers.  In arguing its case, the EEOC relied on Valdez v. Minnesota Quarries, Inc., in which an employee who traveled to Mexico was fired after returning because his employer feared he had contracted swine flu during his trip.*

The Florida court distinguished Valdez and the other cases relied on by the EEOC because in those cases, the employer believed the employee was already disabled or suffering from the condition at issue.  In this case, the employer did not believe that the employee had already contracted Ebola but was instead concerned about the possibility to contract it while in Ghana.  The Court held that the perceived possibility to contract an illness in the future is not the same as a perception that the employee is presently disabled.  To read the Court’s full opinion, click here.

While this employee did not have a case, it is important for employees to remember that the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, does protect against discrimination based on a perceived disability.  Many people only think of the ADA as a law that protects employees with actual disabilities, but the law is much broader than that.  Having a history of a disability, being associated with someone else with a disability, and being perceived as having a disability you do not actually have are all protected under the ADA.  A good disability discrimination attorney understands when you do and when you do not have a case under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and can explain your ADA rights to you.

* The Valdez case was dismissed because swine flu would be considered “transitory and minor,” and thus not a disability under the ADA.  The EEOC relied on this case nonetheless because it was not dismissed based on the employer believing that an employer had contracted an illness while traveling, but rather because of the illness itself.

Bottom Line: you can be fired for planning a trip to Ghana.  Call the wrongful termination attorneys at Gold Star Law for more information.