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 Texas, 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.
Both Texas and federal law prohibit disability discrimination. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects applicants and employees from disability discrimination and requires employers to provide them with reasonable accommodations. Texas has a similar law, which is intended to mirror the ADA. Both laws apply to private employers with at least 15 employees. Federal law also provides certain leave rights to employees with disabilities (see "Time Off" below).
Under state and federal law, a disability is a physical or mental impairment 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 caring for oneself, walking, hearing, breathing, learning, seeing, speaking, performing manual tasks, and so on. Major bodily functions, such as the proper working of the immune, digestive, endocrine, reproductive, neurological, respiratory, digestive, and other bodily systems, are also included.
Under the ADA and Texas law, you are also protected from discrimination based on your record or history of disability (for example, because you had childhood cancer) or your employer’s inaccurate perception that you have a disability. For instance, if you have a slightly unsteady gait that does not impair your ability to walk, it would be discriminatory for your employer to assume that you're unable to do a job that requires walking.
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. (To learn more about which job duties qualify as essential, see Essential Job Functions Under the ADA.)
Under the ADA and Texas law, employers must provide 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. For example, an employer might provide voice recognition software to an employee who is visually impaired, might lower the height of a desktop and install ramps to accommodate an employee who uses a wheelchair, or might allow an employee with diabetes to take more frequent breaks to eat, drink, use the restroom, and monitor blood sugar levels. (Learn more about accommodations for specific disabilities at our Reasonable Accommodations page.)
If you need a reasonable accommodation to do your job, it’s up to you to ask for it. (For tips, see Requesting a Reasonable Accommodation.) Your employer doesn’t necessarily have to provide the specific accommodation you request, but it must engage in a dialogue with you to try to come up with an effective accommodation. An employer does not need to make an accommodation that would create undue hardship: significant difficulty or expense, given the nature, size, and resources of the employer.
You might need leave from work because of your disability. For instance, if you have an injury that prevents you from working or you are undergoing chemotherapy, you may need some time off from your job. 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 applies to employers with 50 or more employees. Although some states have similar laws (some of which apply to smaller employers), Texas is not one of them.
Your employer may also be required to give you time off as a reasonable accommodation, depending on the circumstances. On the one hand, employers are not expected to provide leave indefinitely. On the other hand, it may be reasonable to allow an employee to take some leave to recuperate and receive treatment, so that he or she can return to work at full strength. 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. (See Time Off Work as a Reasonable Accommodation for more information.)
If you lost your job in circumstances like these, you should consider talking to a lawyer about a disability discrimination lawsuit:
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.
If you want to file a lawsuit against your employer for disability discrimination under the ADA or Texas law, you must first file a charge of discrimination with a government agency. You may file either with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency that enforces federal workplace discrimination laws, or the Texas Workforce Commission Civil Rights Division (TWCCRD). (As in many states, the two agencies have a work-sharing agreement, so that a charge filed with one agency is also considered filed with the other.) You have either 180 days or 300 days to file your charge.
You may not file a lawsuit until you have filed a charge of discrimination with either the EEOC or the TWCCRD. Either agency may investigate your claims, try to settle the case with your employer, or propose mediation. (See Filing an EEOC Charge of Discrimination to learn more.)
If you want to file a lawsuit right away, you can ask the EEOC or the TWCCRD to issue you a right-to-sue letter. This letter confirms that you have met the legal requirement of filing a charge. But make sure you are ready to move forward with your lawsuit: Once the agency issues the letter, you will have only 90 days to file a lawsuit under federal law. For claims of discrimination under Texas law, you have two years from the date you initially filed your claim with the agency.
If you win your lawsuit, you can ask for your job back (called "reinstatement"). However, courts are hesitant to order reinstatement, particularly if your employer already hired someone to take your place. There’s likely a lot of bad blood between you and your employer, and the new hire would also be displaced by reinstatement, something courts don’t like to do.
However, you can ask the court to award you money damages for the harm your employer caused. These damages might include:
There’s no legal cap on lost wages. However, there is 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. These limits apply to both federal and state claims of disability discrimination.
If you are considering filing an EEOC or TWCCRD 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.
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 a contingency fee, which means the lawyer collects fees only if you win your case (by taking a percentage of your recovery).
Learn more about hiring a lawyer in a discrimination case, including how lawyers charge and how they decide whether to take a case, at our Asserting your Rights Against Discrimination page. To find a local employment lawyer, check out Nolo’s Lawyer Directory.