In North Carolina, most 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 that would have allowed you to do your job, you may have a strong claim against your employer for wrongful termination. This article explains your legal rights and what steps to take if you want to pursue a case against your employer.
In North Carolina, the Persons with Disabilities Protection Act prohibits employers from discriminating against employees with disabilities. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also protects employees with disabilities from workplace discrimination. Both laws apply only to those private employers with at least 15 employees. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) also provides leave rights to employees who work for larger employers.
Under the ADA and North Carolina law, a disability is an impairment (physical or mental) that substantially limits at least one major life activity. Major life activities are things we do that are of central importance to our daily lives, such as breathing, seeing, hearing, speaking, learning, caring for oneself, walking, performing manual tasks, and learning. Major bodily functions, such as the proper working of the digestive, reproductive, neurological, endocrine, and immune systems, also qualify as major life activities.
Both the ADA and North Carolina law also prohibit discrimination based on your record or history of disability (for example, because you had childhood cancer) or your employer’s misconception 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 job, with or without a reasonable accommodation. (To find out more, see Essential Job Functions Under the ADA.)
Under the ADA and North Carolina law, employees with disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodations that would allow them to do the job. Reasonable accommodations include assistance or changes to work rules, job duties, or the structure and configuration of the workplace. For example, an employer may be required to provide a sign language interpreter for a hearing impaired employee at a training session, or provide a quieter work space for an employee with attention deficit disorder. (Get more information – including FAQs on accommodations for specific disabilities – at our Reasonable Accommodations page.)
If you need a reasonable accommodation to do your job, you have to ask for one. (Learn tips on making your request at Requesting a Reasonable Accommodation.) The law doesn’t give you the right to receive the exact accommodation you request, but your employer must work with you to try to come up with an effective accommodation. However, you are not entitled to an accommodation that would create undue hardship: significant difficulty or expense, given the company’s size, resources, nature, and structure.
Some employees need time off work because of their disabilities. You might need leave for therapy appointments, surgery, chemotherapy, dialysis, or recuperation from a flare-up of a chronic ailment, such as asthma. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives eligible employees the right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for their own serious health conditions. However, the FMLA applies only to employers with 50 or more employees. Although some states have similar laws (some of which apply to smaller employers), North Carolina does not.
Your employer may also be required to provide time off as a reasonable accommodation for your disability. Because attendance is an essential function of most jobs, courts typically find that employers don’t have to grant a request for open-ended or unlimited leave. However, an employer may be required to provide several weeks (or even months) off, if it would allow an employee to return to work at a foreseeable time in the future. In deciding this question, courts look at your job duties, how much time off you need, and how your employer has treated requests for time off from employees who do not have disabilities, among other things. (Get more details at Time Off Work as a Reasonable Accommodation.)
If you lost your job in circumstances like these, you should talk to a lawyer about the possibility of taking legal action against your employer:
If you were fired based on your disability, your request for a reasonable accommodation, or your inability to perform your job duties without a reasonable accommodation, you might have a wrongful termination claim.
If you want to file a lawsuit against your employer for disability discrimination under the ADA, you must first file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). You have 180 days to file your charge. The EEOC may investigate your claims, ask you and your employer to mediate the dispute, or try to settle the case with your employer. (Learn more about what the EEOC does in Filing an EEOC Charge of Discrimination.)
If you want to file a federal lawsuit right away, you can ask the EEOC to issue you a right-to-sue letter. This letter simply states that you have met your obligation to file a charge with the agency and may proceed to court. Once the letter is issued, you will have only 90 days to file a lawsuit.
Because North Carolina does not have its own agency that enforces state laws prohibiting discrimination, you do not need to file a charge with a state agency before proceeding to court (based on your state claims). However, you must file your lawsuit within 180 days of the action you believe was discriminatory. You should consult with a lawyer well before the state and federal deadlines, though, to make sure all of your claims are preserved.
If you win your lawsuit, you can ask the judge to order your employer to hire you back into your former job (called "reinstatement"). However, reinstatement isn’t common, particularly after a lawsuit has been filed. The relationship between you and your former employer is likely beyond repair.
You can, however, ask the court to award you money damages for the harm caused by your wrongful termination. Depending on the facts, these damages can include:
Which types of damages are available depends on whether your claims are based on federal or state law. Under federal law, you can request all of these damages. There’s no legal cap on lost wages. However, the ADA places a limit on how much you can be awarded for emotional distress, out-of-pocket losses, and punitive damages. The maximum combined award for these types of damages ranges from $50,000 to $300,000, depending on the size of your employer.
Under North Carolina law, you can’t be awarded damages for emotional distress or punitive damages. Back pay is available without limit, as well as attorneys' fees and costs. Because the damages under state law are so limited, attorneys typically advise North Carolina clients to rely on the ADA for a larger recovery.
If you are considering filing an EEOC charge or a lawsuit against your employer, you should talk to an experienced employment lawyer right away. A lawyer can help you decide how best to proceed, given the facts underlying your claims, the damages you have suffered, and the other options available.
In discrimination cases, lawyers representing employees typically work on a contingency contract. This means that your lawyer gets paid only if you win (by taking a percentage of your settlement or award). Both federal and state law also allow the court to award attorneys' fees if you are successful in court.