Wrongfully Terminated for Having a Disability in Georgia

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

If you lost your job because you have a disability, or because you were denied a reasonable accommodation you needed in order to do your job, you may have a strong legal claim for wrongful termination. In Georgia, most employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees with disabilities. This article explains your legal rights under disability discrimination laws, including your right to reasonable accommodation. It also provides information on how to pursue a wrongful termination claim against your employer.

Understanding Disability Discrimination

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects employees from disability discrimination and gives them the right to reasonable accommodations that would allow them to do their jobs. The ADA applies to private employers with at least 15 employees. Unlike most other states, Georgia does not have its own law prohibiting disability discrimination. If you work in Georgia, you are protected only by the ADA.

Covered Disabilities

Under the ADA, a disability is an impairment (physical or mental) that substantially limits a major life activity. Major life activities are things we do that are centrally important to our daily lives, such as hearing, speaking, seeing, breathing, learning, caring for oneself, walking, and performing manual tasks. Major bodily functions, such as the proper working of the nervous, immune, and reproductive systems, also qualify as major life activities, as does normal cell growth.

Under the ADA, employers also may not discriminate based on your history of having a disability (for example, because you had cancer in the past) or your employer’s inaccurate belief that you have a disability (for example, your employer’s assumption that you are unable to perform manual tasks because you wear an arm brace or walk with a limp).

To be protected under the ADA, you must be able to perform the essential functions of your position, with or without a reasonable accommodation. (Learn which functions count in Essential Job Functions Under the ADA.)

Understanding Reasonable Accommodations

The ADA gives employees the right to reasonable accommodations for their disabilities. Reasonable accommodations include assistance or changes to work rules, job duties, or the structure and configuration of the workplace to allow an employee with a disability to do the job. For example, an employer may be required to adjust the height of a desk to allow an employee in a wheelchair to work. (Our Reasonable Accommodations page provides more information, including FAQs on accommodations for particular disabilities).

If you need a reasonable accommodation, it’s up to you to request one. Your employer isn’t required to guess (and should not assume) that you might need help. (Requesting a Reasonable Accommodation provides tips on how to make the request.) Your employer must engage in an interactive dialogue with you to come up with an accommodation that would work. However, your employer doesn’t have to provide the exact accommodation you request, nor must it make an accommodation that would create undue hardship: significant difficulty or expense, based on the company’s structure, size, and resources.

Time Off Work

You might need to take leave from your job for surgery, treatment, therapy, or recuperation for your disability. 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 only applies to employers with 50 or more employees. Although some states have similar laws (some of which apply to smaller employers), Georgia does not.

Time off may also be a reasonable accommodation for your disability under the ADA. Because attendance is an essential function of most jobs, many courts have held that employers do not have to hold an employee’s job open indefinitely. So if you need an indefinite amount of leave or can’t estimate a return-to-work date, your employer can likely deny your request.

However, if you need a reasonable amount of time off and will be able to return to work in the foreseeable future, your employer may be required to give you leave. Among other things, courts look at how much time off you need, what your job duties are, and how your employer has treated requests for time off from employees who do not have disabilities. (Find out more in Time Off Work as a Reasonable Accommodation.)

Disability Discrimination Claims

Disability discrimination can take many forms. If you were fired in any of the circumstances listed below, you should strongly consider consulting with a lawyer about a potential wrongful termination case.

  • You lost your job just after telling your employer about your disability or revealing that you need a reasonable accommodation (especially if your disability is not obvious).
  • Your employer refused to grant (or ignored) your request for a reasonable accommodation.
  • Your employer treated you differently than employees who do not have disabilities (for example, by holding you to stricter standards or denying you benefits provided to employees without disabilities).
  • Your employer fired you based on stereotypes, assumptions, or biased beliefs about your disability or disabilities in general.
  • Your supervisor made unkind, prejudiced, or critical comments about your disability.

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 you want to pursue a claim for violations of the ADA, you’ll need to file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces the ADA. You have 180 days to file your charge. The agency may investigate your claims, try to negotiate a settlement with your employer, or propose mediation. (Learn more about the process in Filing an EEOC Charge of Discrimination.)

You may not file a lawsuit until you receive a "right-to-sue" letter from the EEOC, stating that you have fulfilled your obligation to file a charge. You may request this letter at any time; however, once you receive the letter, you will have only 90 days to file a lawsuit.

Damages Available for Disability Discrimination

If you win your ADA lawsuit, you can ask the court to order your employer to give you your job back (called "reinstatement"). However, because the termination and lawsuit have typically soured the relationship between employer and employee beyond repair, courts are often unwilling to do this.

If this is your situation, you can ask for money damages to compensate you for the harm caused 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 the termination (called "back pay")
  • out-of-pocket costs you had to pay, such as the costs associated with your job search
  • wages for some time into the future (called "front pay"), if you are not reinstated and you will have trouble finding a new job
  • attorneys' fees and lawsuit costs
  • damages for pain and suffering (for the mental and 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 federal law 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.

Hiring a Lawyer

If you are considering filing an EEOC charge or a lawsuit against your employer, you should talk to an experienced employment lawyer. A lawyer can help you evaluate the strength of your claims, how much you might be awarded if you win, and much more. A lawyer can try to settle the case with your employer, attend interviews and mediation sessions, and—of course—represent you in court.

Especially if you are still out of work, you may be concerned about the cost of hiring a lawyer. In discrimination cases, however, lawyers generally charge on a contingency basis. This means that, instead of charging hourly fees up front, the lawyer will take a percentage of any award or settlement received on your behalf.

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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