Wrongfully Terminated for Having a Disability in Pennsylvania

Employees with disabilities in Pennsylvania employees are protected from workplace discrimination and entitled to reasonable accommodation.

Do you believe you were fired because of your disability? If you’re right, you may have a legal claim against your employer for wrongful termination. In Pennsylvania, most employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees with disabilities or refusing to make reasonable accommodations for their disabilities. Below, we explain your legal rights and what to do if you believe you were wrongfully terminated because of your disability.

Laws Protecting Employees With Disabilities

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects employees with disabilities from discrimination on the job and gives them the right to reasonable accommodations at work. As long as you can perform the essential functions of your position, with or without a reasonable accommodation, your employer may not base job decisions on your disability. (See Essential Job Functions Under the ADA to learn more.) The ADA applies to private employers with 15 or more employees.

Pennsylvania law prohibits discrimination against those with a “non-job-related handicap or disability,” defined as a disability that doesn’t substantially interfere with the employee’s ability to perform the essential functions of the job. Pennsylvania law also explicitly prohibits discrimination against those who use a guide or support animal for their disabilities or those who train or handle such animals. The state’s law applies to employers with at least four employees.

Disability Defined

Under Pennsylvania and federal law, a disability is defined as an impairment, whether mental or physical, 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 hearing, seeing, speaking, caring for oneself, walking, performing manual tasks, breathing, learning, and working. Major bodily functions, such as the proper working of the reproductive, neurological, digestive, and other bodily systems, are also included.

Both the ADA and Pennsylvania 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.

Reasonable Accommodations at Work

Employers must make reasonable accommodations for their employees with disabilities. Reasonable accommodations include assistance or changes to the job or workplace that will allow the employee to do the job. As potential accommodations, Pennsylvania law specifically mentions modifying tools or equipment and making changes to the training, schedule, job duties, or assistance provided to a worker. (Learn more about accommodations at our Reasonable Accommodations page.)

If you need a reasonable accommodation to do your job, you must ask for it. (See Requesting a Reasonable Accommodation for tips.) While you aren’t entitled to the exact accommodation you request, your employer must work with you to try to come up with an effective accommodation. However, an accommodation is not required if it would cause your employer undue hardship: significant difficulty or expense, given the company’s size, nature, structure, and resources.

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), Pennsylvania is not one of them.

Your employer may also be required to provide time off as a reasonable accommodation, depending on the circumstances. On the one hand, attendance is an essential job function of most positions, and employers are not expected to hold positions open indefinitely. On the other hand, giving an employee some time off for treatment or recovery may be reasonable, if it would allow the employee to return to work in the foreseeable 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. (Find out more in Time Off Work as a Reasonable Accommodation.)

Wrongful Termination Scenarios

If you lost your job in circumstances like these, you should consider talking to a lawyer about a disability discrimination lawsuit:

  • Your employer fired you based on stereotypes or biases about your disability.
  • You were fired just after revealing your disability or requesting a reasonable accommodation.
  • Your employer refused or ignored your request for a reasonable accommodation.
  • Your manager made critical comments or incorrect assumptions about your disability.
  • Your employer treated you differently from employees who do not have disabilities (for example, by denying your request for leave even though it had granted such requests from other employees for other reasons).

If You Were Fired Because of Your Disability: Next Steps

You may have a claim against your employer for wrongful termination if you were fired because of your disability, because you requested a reasonable accommodation, or because you couldn't perform your job duties and were denied an accommodation.

Filing a Charge With a Government Agency

If you want to file a lawsuit against your employer for disability discrimination under either the ADA or Pennsylvania law, you must first file a charge of discrimination with a government agency. You may file either with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). You have either 180 days or 300 days to file your charge, depending on the nature of your claims. (Learn more in Filing an EEOC Charge of Discrimination.)

Until you have filed an administrative charge with either the EEOC or the PHRC, you may not file a lawsuit. If you want to proceed to court quickly, though, you can ask the EEOC or the PHRC to issue you an immediate right-to-sue letter. The letter simply states that you have fulfilled your legal obligation to file a charge. But make sure you are ready to move forward with your lawsuit before you ask for a letter: Once the agency issues the letter, you will have only 90 days to file a lawsuit under federal law. For claims of discrimination under Pennsylvania law, you have two years from the date you initially filed your claim with the agency.

Damages for Wrongful Termination Due to Disability

If you win your lawsuit, you can ask the judge to order your employer to reinstate you to your former position. However, courts are typically hesitant to order reinstatement because the working relationship between you and your former employer is likely soured 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:

  • lost wages and benefits to date ("back pay")
  • lost pay going forward, if the court isn’t going to reinstate you (called “front pay,” this money is intended to compensate you if it will take some time for you to find a new job)
  • reimbursement for expenses you had to pay out of pocket because you were fired (for example, the cost of looking for another job)
  • court costs and attorneys' fees
  • 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 does place 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.

If your claims are based on Pennsylvania law, the court cannot award you any punitive damages. However, damages for pain and suffering and out-of-pocket losses are not subject to any cap or limit.

Hiring a Lawyer

If you are considering filing an EEOC or PHRC charge, or a lawsuit, 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 recovery). 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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