Wrongfully Terminated for Having a Disability in Florida

Employees with disabilities are protected from discrimination and entitled to reasonable accommodations at work.

Did your Florida employer fire you because of your disability, your request for a reasonable accommodation, or your inability to do your job without a necessary accommodation? If so, you may have a wrongful termination claim against your employer. In Florida, as in other states, employees are protected from discrimination based on their disabilities and entitled to reasonable accommodations at work.

Below, you’ll learn about your legal rights as an employee with a disability, how to pursue a claim against your employer, and what you might receive if you win.

Disability Discrimination Laws

A federal law called the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) bans employers from discriminating against employees based on their disabilities. Under the ADA, employers must also provide reasonable accommodations that would allow employees with disabilities to do their jobs. The ADA applies to private employers with at least 15 employees.

In Florida, the Civil Rights Act prohibits disability discrimination in the workplace and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations. The Civil Rights Act also applies to private employers with 15 or more employees. Florida courts have stated that the Civil Rights Act is to be interpreted in conformity with the ADA.

Which Disabilities Are Covered

Under the ADA, a disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits at least one major life activity. Major life activities are things that are of central importance to daily life, such as working, walking, learning, hearing, speaking, seeing, breathing, caring for oneself, and performing manual acts. Major bodily functions, such as normal cell growth, brain function, and the proper working of the digestive, endocrine, and reproductive systems, also qualify as major life activities.

Employers may not discriminate based on your history of having a disability (for example, because you have undergone cancer treatment) or your employer’s mistaken belief that you have a disability.

To be protected under federal and state disability laws, you must be able to perform the essential functions of your position, with or without a reasonable accommodation. (Find out more about this requirement in Essential Job Functions Under the ADA.)

Reasonable Accommodations

Both the ADA and Florida law require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. Reasonable accommodations include changes to work rules, job duties, or the structure and configuration of the workplace, which will allow an employee with a disability to do the job. For example, an employer may be required to give an employee with diabetes more frequent breaks to monitor blood sugar and take medication. (Check out our Reasonable Accommodations page for detailed information on accommodations for various disabilities.)

If you need a reasonable accommodation, you must ask for one. (Requesting a Reasonable Accommodation explains how.) Your employer must work with you to come up with an accommodation that will allow you to do your job. Your employer doesn’t have to give you the exact accommodation you request, nor does it have to provide an accommodation that would cause undue hardship: significant difficulty or expense, based on the company’s resources, size, structure, and nature.

If You Need Time Off Work

You might need to take time off work for doctors' visits, treatment, ongoing therapy, surgery or other medical procedures, or recuperation. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives eligible employees the right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for a serious health condition. However, the FMLA applies only to employers with at least 50 employees. Although some states have their own leave laws, Florida does not.

The ADA might give you the right to time off as a reasonable accommodation for your disability, too. If you need an indefinite amount of leave or can’t estimate a return-to-work date, your employer probably doesn't have to grant your request. Attendance is an essential job function of most jobs, so courts generally don’t require employers to hold an employee’s job open indefinitely.

However, an employee might be entitled to some extra time off if it would allow him or her to return to work in the foreseeable future. Courts considering this issue will look at the employee’s job duties, how much leave the employee needs, and how much time off the employer has provided to other employees. (Get more information in Time Off Work as a Reasonable Accommodation.)

Common Disability Discrimination Situations

If you lost your job in any of these circumstances, you may have a good case against your employer:

  • Your manager or coworkers made cruel, critical, or biased statements about your disability or about disabilities in general.
  • You were fired shortly after you revealed your disability or requested a reasonable accommodation (especially if your disability is not obvious).
  • Your employer refused or ignored your request for a reasonable accommodation.
  • Your employer treated you differently than employees who do not have disabilities.
  • Your employer fired you based on stereotypes or prejudiced beliefs about your disability or people with disabilities.

What to Do If You Were Fired Because of Your Disability

If you believe you were terminated wrongfully because of your disability, you can pursue legal action against your employer. But first, you must file a discrimination charge with a government agency.

Filing an Administrative Charge of Discrimination

If your employer violated the ADA or the Florida Civil Rights Act, you have to file a charge of discrimination with a state or federal agency before you can file a lawsuit. You may file with either the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces the ADA, or the Florida Commission on Human Rights (FCHR). Because the agencies have a work-sharing agreement, you don’t have to file a charge with both; once you file your charge with one agency, it will automatically be filed with the other. You have either 300 days or one year to file your charge, depending on your claims. (Learn more about the process in Filing an EEOC Charge of Discrimination.)

If you want to file a lawsuit immediately, you can ask for a right-to-sue letter, which states that you have filed a charge as required. But don’t ask the agency to issue you the letter until you are ready to go to court. You will have only 90 days to file a lawsuit after the EEOC issues its letter.

Because of the overlap between federal and state claims, and the different procedural requirements, you should consult with a lawyer well before any of the deadlines mentioned above. A lawyer can help you figure out which claims are strongest and how best to proceed.

Damages for Disability Discrimination

If you sue your employer and win, you can ask to be reinstated to your former job. Typically, however, the firing and lawsuit will have soured the relationship between you and your employer enough that this remedy would be impractical.

You can also request money damages to compensate you for the harm done by your employer’s actions. Depending on the facts of your case, these damages might include:

  • wages and benefits you lost as a result of being fired
  • expenses you had to pay out of pocket, such as the costs of looking for a new job
  • wages for some time into the future, if reinstatement isn’t an option and you'll have trouble finding a new job
  • attorneys' fees and court costs
  • pain and suffering (the emotional distress caused by the employer’s discriminatory actions) and
  • punitive damages, intended to punish your employer for breaking the law (these damages are only awarded in special circumstances, where the employer acted intentionally or in a particularly egregious way).

While the ADA does not place a cap on lost wages, it does impose caps on how much you can be awarded for pain and suffering, out-of-pocket losses, and punitive damages. Depending on the size of your employer, the maximum combined award for these types of damages ranges from $50,000 to $300,000.

Under the Florida Civil Rights Act, damages for pain and suffering can be awarded without limit. However, punitive damages are capped at $100,000, regardless of the size of your employer.

Hiring a Lawyer

If you want to file a discrimination charge or a lawsuit against your former employer, consult with an experienced employment lawyer. A lawyer can assess the strength of your claims and explain how much you might be awarded if you win. A lawyer can try to settle the case with your employer, attend interviews and mediation sessions, and represent you in court.

Hiring a lawyer is feasible in discrimination cases, as lawyers generally charge on a contingency basis (meaning they take a percentage of your award rather than charge you on an hourly basis).

Learn more about hiring and working with a lawyer in a discrimination case at our Asserting your Rights Against Discrimination page. To find a local employment lawyer, check out Nolo’s Lawyer Directory.

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