Wrongfully Terminated for Having a Disability in Ohio

Ohio employees with disabilities are protected from workplace discrimination and entitled to reasonable accommodation.

If you were fired, or denied a reasonable accommodation, because of your disability, you may have a legal claim against your employer for wrongful termination. Most Ohio employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees with disabilities or refusing to provide them with reasonable accommodations. This article covers the legal rights of employees with disabilities and explains the steps you can take if you were wrongfully terminated because of your disability.

Disability Discrimination

Federal and Ohio law both prohibit disability discrimination and require employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to private employers with 15 or more employees. Ohio's law applies to employers with four or more employees. Employees with disabilities may also have the right to take time off from work under federal law.

Disability Defined

Under Ohio and federal law, a disability is defined as an impairment, physical or mental, that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Major life activities are things we do that are of essential importance to daily life, such as learning, working, hearing, seeing, speaking, caring for oneself, walking, performing manual tasks, and breathing. Major bodily functions, such as the proper working of the neurological, digestive, endocrine, immune, and other bodily systems, fall within the definition of major life activities.

Both the ADA and Ohio law also prohibit discrimination based on your record or history of disability (for example, because you had a heart attack) or your employer’s incorrect perception that you have a disability.

Under the ADA, your employer may not make job decisions based on your disability as long as you can perform the essential functions of your position, with or without a reasonable accommodation. (See Essential Job Functions Under the ADA to learn more.) While Ohio law uses slightly different language (the employee must be able to "safely and substantially perform the essential functions of the job"), Ohio courts have consistently interpreted Ohio’s disability discrimination law in accordance with the requirements of the ADA.

Workplace Accommodations

The ADA and Ohio law require employers to make reasonable accommodations for their employees with disabilities. Reasonable accommodations include assistance or changes to the job or workplace that will allow an employee with a disability to do the job. (Learn more at our Reasonable Accommodations page.)

If you need a reasonable accommodation to do your job, the burden falls on you to ask for one. (See Requesting a Reasonable Accommodation for tips on how to make the request.) You aren’t entitled to the precise accommodation you request, but your employer must work with you to try to come up with an effective accommodation. However, your employer isn’t required to provide an accommodation that would create undue hardship: significant difficulty or expense, given the company’s size, resources, nature, and structure.

Leave From Work

Some employees need time off work because of their disabilities. You might need leave for surgery, treatment, or doctors' appointments, for example. 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 only covers employers with 50 or more employees. Although some states have similar laws (which may apply to smaller employers), Ohio is not one of them.

In some cases, your employer may be required to provide time off as a reasonable accommodation under federal or Ohio law. Attendance is typically an essential job function of a position, which an employee must be able to do. However, allowing an employee to take a certain amount of time off may be reasonable and may help the employee return to work at full strength. In deciding whether time off is required, 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. Generally speaking, though, unlimited or open-ended time off (leave without a return-to-work date) is not a reasonable accommodation. (Find out more in Time Off Work as a Reasonable Accommodation.)

Disability Discrimination Scenarios

If you lost your job in circumstances like these, you should consider legal action against your employer:

  • Your employer fired you based on stereotypes, assumptions, or biases about your disability.
  • Your supervisor made disparaging or critical comments about your disability.
  • You were fired just after disclosing your disability or asking for a reasonable accommodation.
  • Your employer refused or ignored your request for a reasonable accommodation.
  • Your employer treated you differently from employees who do not have disabilities (for example, by holding you to higher standards).

Your Options If You Were Fired Because of Your Disability

If you were fired because of your disability, or because you needed or asked for a reasonable accommodation, you might have a wrongful termination claim against your employer.

Filing an Agency Charge

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), the federal agency that enforces the ADA. You may also file a charge of discrimination with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, although this is not a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit based on state claims. You have either six months or 300 days to file your charge, depending on whether you are alleging violations of state or federal law. (Learn more in Filing an EEOC Charge of Discrimination .)

If you want to file a federal lawsuit quickly, 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. Once the letter is issued, you will have only 90 days to file a lawsuit.

If you want to file a lawsuit under Ohio law, you can proceed straight to court. You have six years to file your case. However, you shouldn’t wait this long. You'll want to go to court before memories fade, evidence disappears, and managers and coworkers move on to new jobs.

Damages for Wrongful Termination Due to Disability

If you win your lawsuit, you can ask the judge to order your employer to hire you back into your old job. However, reinstatement isn’t common, particularly at the end of a lawsuit: The relationship between you and your former employer is probably strained to the point that working together again would be difficult.

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:

  • lost wages and benefits to date (back pay)
  • lost pay going forward (front pay), if reinstatement isn’t workable (this money is intended to compensate you for the time it will take you to find a new job)
  • costs you had to pay out of pocket because you were fired (for example, expenses relating to your job search)
  • attorneys' fees and lawsuit costs
  • damages for emotional distress resulting from your employer’s illegal actions (called "pain and suffering"), and
  • punitive damages, intended to punish your employer for breaking the law (these damages are only awarded if the employer acted egregiously).

There’s no legal cap on lost wages. However, the ADA places a limit on how much you can be awarded for pain and suffering, 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 the Ohio Civil Rights Act, courts used to allow unlimited damage awards for pain and suffering and punitive damages. However, Ohio recently enacted a tort reform measure capping the total damages that can be awarded in these categories. At least one court has decided that these caps apply to discrimination cases brought under Ohio law. The Ohio Supreme Court has not yet weighed in with a final ruling on this question; an experienced employment lawyer can tell you how your local courts have ruled.

Hiring a Lawyer

If you are considering filing an EEOC or OCRC charge, or a lawsuit against your employer, you should talk to an experienced employment lawyer. 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 often represent employees on a contingency basis. This means that the lawyer gets paid only if you win (by taking a percentage of your award or settlement). Both federal and state law also allow the court to award attorneys' fees if you are successful in court.

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

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