On Jan. 5, Dawn Desilets filed a federal lawsuit against the Lifespan Corporation for disability discrimination and retaliation for using the Family and Medical Leave Act. According to court documents reviewed by The Herald, Desilets was fired in 2021 after contracting “long-haul” COVID. Desilets claims the termination of her contract is unlawful.
Desilets is charging Lifespan on the count of disability discrimination following her contraction of long COVID. Long COVID is an umbrella term referring to physical and mental symptoms experienced by some patients at least four weeks after SARS-CoV-2 infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to Michael Yelnosky, professor of law at Roger Williams University, “the inclusion of long COVID as a disability … is a pretty routine application of the existing text under the (Americans with Disabilities Act) to a new malady.”
Before pursuing the federal lawsuit, Desilets was required to file a charge with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights, an anti-discrimination enforcement agency.
COVID-related cases are investigated and decided by the RICHR “in the same manner as other cases which contain allegations of disparate treatment, harassment (and) denial of accommodations,” wrote Michael Évora, RICHR executive director, in an email to The Herald.
Desilets first tested positive for COVID-19 in August 2021, according to her complaint. The court documents state that she experienced “severe COVID symptoms including: pulmonary embolisms, COVID lung, pneumonia, severe shortness of breath, fatigue and other serious COVID-related issues.”
According to Yelnosky, to be categorized as a disability, a condition must “substantially limit a major life activity.” In her complaint, Desiltes claimed that long COVID caused “breathing difficulty, sinus issues … and fatigue, among other symptoms.” According to Desilets, her employers and supervisors were aware of her experiencing long COVID when she returned to work.
After being medically cleared to return to work in Nov. 2021, Desilets claimed in her complaint that her supervisor’s behavior toward her changed — allegedly “micromanaging” and “ostracizing her at times.”
A month after returning to work, Desilets’s husband also contracted COVID-19. Desilets claimed she reported the infection to her supervisor and took a preemptive test but was told that not required to test for COVID-19 because she was “immune for six months” following her initial infection.
Several days later, Desilets said she was informed that her contract had been terminated over a Zoom meeting. According to her complaint, Desilets’s supervisor stated the dismissal was based on her violating the company’s “sick policy” and coming “into work sick twice,” referring to her initial contraction of COVID-19 and that of her husband.
After requesting documented reasoning for her termination multiple times, Desilets claimed to have received a letter from the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training that stated “poor work performance issues” as the reason for her termination.
According to the complaint, “at all times relevant during her employment, (Desilets) met or exceeded her employer's expectations.”
The lawsuit also accuses Lifespan of FMLA retaliation, which occurs when an employer takes any type of “adverse action” against an employee for engaging in protected activity, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The charge refers to Desilets’s application for leave under the FMLA following her initial COVID-19 infection.
Yelnosky predicts that Lifespan might push back on Desilets’s claims concerning the reasoning for her discharge. In that case, it will become Desilets’s “burden to show she was discharged … because of her disability,” he said.
For Yelnosky, the question is not if Desilets is disabled or took FMLA leave but whether those factors played a role in her termination. “This all comes down to motive,” he said.
Kathleen Hart, director of public relations for Lifespan, declined to comment on the lawsuit because the case is “pending litigation.”
When asked about the potential impact of the case, Évora explained that if the commission issues a formal decision on a COVID-related case, “that decision could have (a) precedential effect on future cases like it.”
Desilets’s complaint asks — among other demands — to be “awarded an amount of money which will fairly compensate her mental anguish, emotional pain and suffering, damage to (her) reputation, loss of standing in the community and other damages incurred,” according to court documents.
Desilets’s attorney did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
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Julia Vaz is a Metro editor covering the environment and crime and justice beats. She is a sophomore from Brazil studying Political Science and Literary Arts.