A federal appeals court Thursday rejected arguments that a Tampa business violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it fired a massage therapist because she would not cancel a trip to Ghana amid an Ebola epidemic in Africa.
Kimberly Lowe, who worked at a Massage Envy business in Tampa, planned in 2014 to visit her sister in Ghana. But she said one of the business owners told her she would be fired if she took the trip because he feared she would become infected with Ebola and bring the deadly disease back to Tampa.
Lowe refused to cancel the trip and lost her job. She then filed an employment-discrimination allegation with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which pursued the case, according to Thursday’s ruling by a panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The EEOC in 2016 found “reasonable cause” to believe the Massage Envy-South Tampa fired Lowe because it “regarded” her as disabled, which would be a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the appeals court ruling said. Later, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against the business, alleging violations of the disabilities law.
But a federal district judge ruled in favor of the business, leading to the case going to the Atlanta-based appeals court. A three-judge panel issued a 30-page main ruling Thursday rejecting the EEOC’s rationale for contending that the business had violated the disabilities law.
“There is no dispute that Lowe was a qualified individual and she suffered an adverse employment action,” said the ruling, written by Judge Frank Hull and joined by judges Adalberto Jordan and Britt Grant. “Rather, the main question is whether Lowe was ‘disabled’ within the meaning of the ADA at the time of Massage Envy’s termination of her employment, that is, before her trip to Ghana. Lowe undisputedly did not have an actual existing disability or a record of disability when she was fired. Thus, the issue here becomes solely whether she was ‘regarded as having’ a disability when fired.”
Like the district judge, the appeals court said the claim did not meet the definition of a disability in the federal law.
“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 ruling said.
The court, however, noted that Ghana was not part of the Ebola outbreak in 2014 in West Africa. It said the epidemic was centered in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.