Wrongful Termination Due to Disability

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against employees with disabilities.

The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against applicants or employees with disabilities. The ADA also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to allow employees with disabilities to perform their jobs.

The ADA protects employees from discriminatory treatment, including being fired because of a disability. To get the benefits of the ADA’s employment provisions, an employee must have a disability within the meaning of the ADA and be qualified for the position for which he or she is requesting an accommodation.

How is Disability Defined?

Not all physical or mental conditions are disabilities under the ADA. For a physical or mental impairment to qualify as a disability, it must substantially limit a "major life activity." Major life activities are activities of essential importance to every day life, such as walking, seeing, breathing, learning, and caring for oneself. Major life activities also include major bodily functions, such as the proper working of the neurological, endocrine, or respiratory systems. This means that serious conditions that have not yet manifested as outwardly debilitating still qualify as disabilities. For example, many types of cancer wreak havoc on the body’s internal functioning (such as proper cell growth or normal immune system function) before they substantially limit someone’s ability to breath, walk, and so on.

The regulations interpreting the ADA identify certain conditions that will almost always qualify as disabilities. These physical and mental impairments include: deafness, blindness, intellectual disabilities, missing limbs, mobility impairments requiring the use of a wheelchair, autism, cancer, cerebral palsy, diabetes, epilepsy, HIV infection, muscular dystrophy, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. For all other conditions, the employee's situation is looked at on a case-by-case basis to determine whether he or she is substantially limited in a major life activity.

Mitigating measures taken by the employee, such as taking medication or using a prosthetic device, are not taken into account when deciding whether the employee has a disability. The one exception to this rule is corrective eye wear, such as glasses or contact lenses. An employee with poor vision who can see 20/20 with contact lenses does not have a disability under the ADA.

Most minor, temporary ailments will not qualify as disabilities. For example, broken bones or the cold or flu are generally not considered disabilities. Although the employee might not be able to walk or go to work for a short period of time, the employee is expected to fully recover. However, an employee with a chronic condition may have a disability, even if it only flares up at certain times. For example, someone with severe seasonal affective disorder - a mental disorder which typically causes depression during the fall and winter months - may qualify as having a disability.

If an employee isn't substantially limited in a major life activity, there are two other ways he or she might qualify as having a disability. First, an employee is protected under the ADA if he or she has a history or record of a substantially limited major life activity. For example, an employee who is in remission from cancer will typically qualify under this category. Second, an employee is protected if the employer incorrectly regards the employee as having a disability. For example, an employee who is treated as if he or she has a learning disability, even if he or she does not, may qualify under this category.

Who Is Qualified For a Position?

In addition to having a disability, the individual must also be qualified for the position he or she is in (or is applying for). An employee is qualified for a position if both of the following are true:

  • The employee satisfies the prerequisites for the job, such as education, experience, skills, and licensing.
  • The employee is able to perform the essential functions of the position, with or without a reasonable accommodation from the employer.

An employer need not keep on an employee who can’t do the job, even if the employee’s problems stem from a disability. But, the employer must keep an employee who can perform the essential functions of the job with a reasonable accommodation. This is true even if the employee is unable to perform the non-essential functions of the job.

When Termination Violates the ADA

The following are some examples of illegal disability discrimination:

  • Fred takes time off work for cancer treatment. After several weeks, he is cleared to return to work and can perform all of the job’s essential functions. If his manager fires or demotes him based on his cancer diagnosis or history of cancer treatment, that would be disability discrimination. As long as Fred can perform the job’s essential functions, he is protected by the ADA. Fred's employer must provide him with reasonable accommodation if he needs it, such as occasional time off work for follow up medical appointments.
  • Toni has bipolar disorder. She reveals her condition to her manager, who fires her. There is no problem with her performance, but the manager believes that people with mental illnesses are dangerous and unreliable. This is disability discrimination: The manager is acting on the basis of bias and stereotypes, not the employee’s actual abilities and performance on the job.
  • Susan works as a salesperson for a department store. After she is reprimanded for eating on the sales floor, she informs her manager that she has diabetes and that she must eat and drink throughout the day to maintain proper blood sugar levels. The manager fires Susan. This violates the ADA because Susan has a disability and needs a reasonable accommodation. Susan's employer could have accommodated her by allowing her to eat during her shifts or by giving her more frequent breaks so she can meet her needs out of the sight of customers.

Do You Need a Lawyer?

If you believe you were fired because of a real or perceived disability, you should talk to an experienced employment lawyer right away. To take legal action, you'll need to file an administrative claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), or a similar agency within your state. This is a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit in court. Your lawyer can help you assess the strength of your case, meet all filing deadlines, and strategize about the best way to resolve your case.

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