Above all, the law says, disabled workers must be treated equally and fairly in the workplace. Even with such laws in place, employers may take a less than accommodating view of disabilities on the job, however. The result is that disabled workers can be harassed, treated harshly in comparison to the rest of their co-workers, or even fired. When termination comes as a result of a disability, it could be grounds for a lawsuit.
The Law on Disability at Work
The current rights in place for disabled workers have developed due to the the hard work of activists and advocacy groups who, in 1990, pushed for changes in federal law. Disabled activists went so far as to crawl up the steps of the Capitol in what became known as the “Capitol Crawl” to drive home the fact that disabled workers were in desperate need of the equal protection of the laws.
Those efforts resulted in an expansion of the rights outlined in Title VII, which granted disabled workers protection from discrimination, harassment and retaliation while on the job starting in 1964 when Congress ratified the law. The seminal result was the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, the law that solidified the rights of disabled workers and added the necessary caveats concerning the right to reasonable accommodations while on the job.
At the State Level, More Protection
Even at the state level, disabled workers are solidly shielded from discrimination on the job. For example, in California, the Fair Housing and Employment Act allows disabled workers to file charges alleging disability discrimination with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). The disability may be actual or perceived or it may be a medical condition such as cancer. The law covers both mental and physical disabilities regardless of whether the condition is presently disabling.
After Termination, Next Steps
Therefore, when a disabled worker is fired due to a disability, there are several options and protections available under the law. At the federal level, a disabled worker can assert rights under Title VII, the ADA or both. Depending on the circumstances of the termination, the worker could recover damages based on his or her ability to show that the disability was a direct or motivating factor of the termination.
A termination that comes after a request for accommodation could also invoke the right to sue. Under the ADA, all disabled workers have the right to request accommodation for their disability and the employer is obliged by law to fulfill the request unless doing so would cause undue hardship to the business.
This brings up another the issue that often arises under the ADA umbrella – that of proving a disability. According to the ADA, a worker must possess a physical impairment that makes it difficult to perform normal life tasks, but still be qualified for the job. Specifically, the ADA determines a worker is disabled if:
- he or she has a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits a major life activity,
- has a record of such impairment, or
- is regarded as having such an impairment.
Workers who are unable to prove their disability could find themselves without the necessary legal justification needed to pursue an employer who has allegedly fired them because of it.
Disability Discrimination and the EEOC
When a disabled worker has been fired as an act of discrimination, one of the next steps is to contact the EEOC. The EEOC handles all federal cases of employment discrimination and supports state offices around the country with similar state law violations. Before reaching court, a disability discrimination suit must find its way to the EEOC for an initial assessment.
The EEOC process is slightly different in detail at the federal and state level, but both processes follow the same general pattern. The disabled worker will have a set number of days to file a charge against his or her employer before the deadline expires. Once a charge is filed, the EEOC launches an investigation into the claims. This may require interviewing employer management and co-workers.
If the EEOC determines that the case should be presented in court via EEOC representation, the agency will take the necessary steps to pursue the matter in court. If not, the EEOC issues a Notice of Right to Sue letter to the disabled worker. This grants the worker the right to pursue the matter in court using his or her own legal representation.
Settling the Matter
Whether or not the EEOC decides to pursue the case, an employer may offer a disabled worker a settlement agreement in order to avoid going to court. These types of agreements are often hyped in media as the source of hefty winnings for plaintiffs. While settlement offers may seem attractive, they are often much less than the damages that can be recovered through trial. The average settlement amount, according to Workplace Fairness, is $125,000 for cases that settle after litigation has begun. This is despite the media reported average of $3.6 million.
What to Do When You’ve Been Fired Because of Your Disability
Deciding what to do when you’ve been fired because of your disability may not be an easy task to handle alone. You’ll need the trusted expertise of an experienced employment rights attorney to help navigate the appropriate next steps.
The law addressing disability discrimination is complex, but it offers disabled workers a variety of legal theories and strategies to pursue after unfair termination. An experienced and reliable employment discrimination attorney can help with every part of the process, from approaching your employer with a company grievance to filing a charge with the EEOC.