Wrongfully Terminated for Having a Disability

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

By , J.D. UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated 5/26/2022

If you lost your job because of your disability, you may have a claim against your employer for wrongful termination. Most employers may not discriminate against employees with disabilities and must provide them with reasonable accommodations at the workplace. This article explains your legal rights and what to do if you believe you were wrongfully terminated because of your disability.

Disability Discrimination Laws

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects applicants and employees with disabilities from workplace discrimination. The ADA applies to private employers with 15 or more employees. (If you work for a smaller employer, you may be protected by your state's disability discrimination law; select your state from the list on our Discrimination and Harassment page to find out.)

What Is a Disability?

You have a disability under the ADA if you have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Major life activities are things that are essential to daily life, such as caring for oneself, walking, hearing, breathing, learning, seeing, speaking, performing manual tasks, and so on. Major life activities also include major bodily functions, such as the proper working of the immune system, normal cell growth, and healthy reproductive, neurological, respiratory, digestive, and circulatory functions.

The ADA also protects employees from discrimination based on a record or history of disability (for example, a history of heart disease) or your employer's incorrect perception that you have a disability. If, for example, you have a limp 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 reasonable accommodation, your employer may not fire you based on your disability. (The essential functions of a position are those that someone in your job absolutely must be able to do, as opposed to tangential or occasional responsibilities; see Essential Job Functions Under the ADA for more information.) In fact, your employer may not consider your disability in making any job decisions, including assignments, promotions, compensation, benefits, discipline, or other terms and conditions of employment.

Reasonable Accommodation

The ADA also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. Accommodating an employee means providing assistance or making changes to the job or workplace that would allow the employee to do the job despite having a disability. For example, an employer might provide voice recognition software to an employee who is visually impaired, lower the height of a desktop and install ramps to accommodate an employee who uses a wheelchair, or allow an employee with diabetes to take more frequent breaks to eat, drink, use the restroom, and monitor blood sugar levels.

If you need reasonable accommodation to do your job, you must request one from your employer. (See Requesting a Reasonable Accommodation to learn how.) Although your employer isn't legally obligated to provide the specific accommodation you request, it must work with you to try to come up with an accommodation that would be effective. However, there are some limits to an employer's duty to accommodate. Your employer is not required to provide an accommodation that would create undue hardship: significant difficulty or expense, given the nature, size, and resources of the company.

Time Off Work

You might also have the right to take time off work because of your disability. For example, you may need time off for surgery, ongoing cancer treatments, or to recover from a back injury. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for a serious health condition. The FMLA applies only to employers with 50 or more employees, and you must meet certain requirements in order to be eligible (including having worked for your employer for at least a year). For more information on the FMLA, including eligibility requirements, see Taking Family and Medical Leave.

Several states have similar family and medical leave laws, which may apply to smaller employers or provide additional rights. (To learn more, select your state from the list at State Family and Medical Leave Laws.) A few states and cities require employers to provide paid sick days to their employees as well.

Time off work might also be required as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. This can be a complicated legal issue. On the one hand, attendance is an essential function of most jobs. On the other, allowing an employee to take some leave to recuperate might allow the employee to return to work at full strength more quickly. Ultimately, courts will look at your job duties, how much time off you needed, and how your employer has treated requests for time off from employees without disabilities, among other things. (See Time Off Work as a Reasonable Accommodation to find out more.)

Common Wrongful Termination Claims

If you were fired in any of the following circumstances, you should consider talking to a lawyer about a disability discrimination lawsuit:

  • You were fired shortly after you revealed your disability or requested a reasonable accommodation.
  • Your manager or employer made disparaging comments about your disability or assumed that you were unable to do your job because of your disability.
  • Your employer denied or ignored your request for a reasonable accommodation.
  • Your employer treated you differently from employees who do not have disabilities (for example, by denying your request for time off relating to your disability even though it grants such requests from other employees for other reasons).
  • You were fired, or forced to quit, because your employer refused to give you time off from work for your disability.
  • Your employer fired you based on stereotypes or biases about your disability.

What to Do If You Are Fired Because of Your Disability

If you want to pursue a wrongful termination case against your employer, there are a few steps you will need to take. Below, we explain the process of filing a wrongful termination lawsuit and what kind of compensation you can expect to recover.

Filing a Discrimination Charge

Before you can sue your employer for disability discrimination, you must file an administrative charge of discrimination with a government agency. You can file your charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal government agency that enforces the ADA, or in some cases, with your state's fair employment practices agency. You have either 180 or 300 days to file your charge, depending on your state's laws. (To learn more about filing and timing requirements, see Filing an EEOC Charge of Discrimination.)

In your charge, you must describe your employer's actions and why you believe they were discriminatory. The EEOC, or your state's agency, will contact your employer about the charge. It may investigate, try to mediate or settle the dispute, or even sue your employer on your behalf (although this is exceedingly rare).

If you want to file a lawsuit right away, you can ask the EEOC or the state agency to issue you a "right to sue" letter, stating that you have met the requirement of filing an administrative charge and may now file a lawsuit. But don't request this letter until you are ready to proceed: You have only 90 days after receiving the letter to file a federal lawsuit.

What Damages Are Available If You Win?

If you win your disability discrimination lawsuit, you can ask the court to reinstate you (that is, to give you back your job). Often, however, this just isn't feasible, given how much time has passed and the negative feelings that have likely built up between you and your former employer.

Instead, it is more common to receive monetary damages, including:

  • the wages (back pay), benefits, and out-of-pocket losses you suffered as a result of being wrongfully fired
  • attorneys' fees and other costs associated with bringing the lawsuit (such as filing fees, costs of transcribing depositions, expert witness fees, copying costs, and so on)
  • front pay, to compensate you if you're unlikely to find a job for some period of time into the future (this isn't available if you are reinstated to the same job)
  • damages for emotional distress caused by the discrimination and firing, 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 an especially blameworthy manner).

You can collect as much as you lost in back wages and benefits. However, federal law limits how much you can be awarded for emotional distress, out-of-pocket losses (such as the costs of looking for a new job), and punitive damages. The maximum combined award for these damages ranges from $50,000 to $300,000, depending on the size of your employer.

Hiring a Lawyer

If you are considering bringing legal claims against your employer for wrongful termination, you should talk to an experienced employment lawyer right away. A lawyer can assess the facts of your case, let you know how strong your claims are, and advise you on how much you might expect to collect in damages. A lawyer can help you file an administrative charge, negotiate with your employer, or arrange a mediation to try to settle your claims. Especially if you decide to file a lawsuit, you will want to have a lawyer representing you each step of the way.

You can find out much more about finding and hiring the right lawyer for your disability 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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