Wrongfully Terminated for Having a Disability in Illinois

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

If your Illinois employer fired you because of your disability or your request for a reasonable accommodation, you may have a legal claim for wrongful termination. In Illinois, employers may not discriminate against employees based on their disabilities. They must also provide reasonable accommodations that would help employees with disabilities do their jobs.

This article explains your rights under federal and Illinois disability discrimination laws. You’ll also find information on how to take action against your employer and what you might receive if you win.

Laws That Prohibit Disability Discrimination

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Illinois Human Rights Act protect employees with disabilities from discrimination in employment. They also give employees the right to reasonable workplace accommodations. Both laws apply to private employers with at least 15 employees.

Covered Disabilities

The ADA defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits at least one major life activity. Major life activities are tasks that are centrally important to daily life, such as learning, working, walking, hearing, speaking, seeing, breathing, caring for oneself, and performing manual acts. Major bodily functions, such as the proper working of the endocrine, neurological, and reproductive systems, also qualify as major life activities, as does normal cell growth.

Employers may not discriminate based on your history of having a disability (for example, because you had open-heart surgery) 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. (Learn more in Essential Job Functions Under the ADA.)

Reasonable Accommodations

Both the ADA and Illinois law require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. Reasonable accommodations include assistance, modifications, or changes to work rules, job duties, or the structure and configuration of the workplace, to allow an employee with a disability to perform the job. For example, an employer may be required to let an employee work later hours, if the employee is drowsy in the morning due to medication for his or her disability. (For more information, including accommodations for particular disabilities, check out our Reasonable Accommodations page.)

Your employer isn’t required to guess (and should not assume) that you need a reasonable accommodation; it’s up to you to ask for one. (Requesting a Reasonable Accommodation provides some tips.) Your employer must work with you to come up with an effective accommodation. However, your employer doesn’t have to give you the precise accommodation you request, nor does it have to provide an accommodation that would create undue hardship: significant difficulty or expense, based on the company’s resources, size, structure, and nature.

Leave From 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 50 or more employees.

You may also have the right to time off as a reasonable accommodation for your disability. If you need an indefinite amount of leave or can’t estimate a return-to-work date, your employer is probably not required to grant your request. Attendance is an essential function of most jobs, so courts are reluctant to require employers to hold an employee’s job open indefinitely.

In some cases, however, an employee might be entitled to some extra time off, if it would help the employee return to work in the foreseeable future. In deciding this question, courts look at the employee’s job duties, how much leave the employee needs, the employee's job duties, and how much time off the employer has provided to other employees. (Learn more in Time Off Work as a Reasonable Accommodation.)

Typical Disability Discrimination Scenarios

Although disability discrimination can come in many forms, some are more common than others. If you lost your job in any of these circumstances, you should definitely talk to a lawyer:

  • Your manager or coworkers made unkind, critical, or biased statements about your disability.
  • You were fired just after disclosing your disability or asking your employer to provide a reasonable accommodation (especially if your disability is not obvious).
  • Your employer refused or ignored your request for an accommodation.
  • Your employer treated you differently than employees who do not have disabilities.
  • Your employer fired you based on stereotypes, presumptions, or prejudiced beliefs about your disability or disabilities in general.

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.

You Must File an Administrative Charge of Discrimination

If your employer violated the ADA or the Illinois Human Rights Act, you’ll need to file a charge of discrimination with a government agency before filing a lawsuit. You may file with either the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces the ADA, or the Illinois Department of Human Rights (IDHR). Because the agencies have a work-sharing agreement, a charge filed with one agency is automatically filed with the other. You have either 180 or 300 days to file your charge. However, you should consult with a lawyer well before either of these deadlines to make sure your claims are preserved.

You may not file a discrimination lawsuit until you have taken your claims to the EEOC or the IDHR. Either 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.)

If you want to file a lawsuit right away, 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.

What Damages Are Available?

If you sue your employer and win, you can ask the court to order your employer to hire you back (called "reinstatement"). However, reinstatement is rare. Typically, the firing and lawsuit will have damaged your relationship with your employer beyond repair.

If this is your situation, you can ask for 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 due to the termination
  • out-of-pocket costs you had to pay, such as the costs associated with your job search
  • 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 lawsuit costs
  • pain and suffering (for 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 Illinois Human Rights Act, you may not be awarded any punitive damages. However, damages for pain and suffering can be awarded without limit. An experienced lawyer can help you figure out which claims would best maximize your potential damages award.

Hiring a Lawyer

If you want to file an administrative charge or a lawsuit against your employer, you should talk to 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.

Lawyers generally charge on a contingency basis in discrimination cases. This means that the lawyer collects fees only if you win your case, by taking a percentage of your award or settlement.

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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