What to Do When Your Employer Discriminates Against You for a Disability

Check if your employer has violated the ADA, and then file a complaint.

By , J.D.

Has your employer discriminated against you because of your disability? If you have been fired, demoted, denied a promotion, disciplined, denied a reasonable accommodation you needed, or otherwise treated differently from other employees because you have a disability, you may have a legal claim against your employer.

If you want to take action to enforce your legal rights, however, you can't just go straight to court and file a lawsuit. You must first file a charge of discrimination against your employer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or a similar government agency. The agency will ask your employer to investigate your claims and perhaps try to settle your dispute. You may not file a lawsuit until you have taken this preliminary step. Below, we describe some common ADA violations, what to do if you're facing disability discrimination, and what is involved in filing a charge.

Violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Employers with at least 15 employees are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination against employees (and job applicants) based on disability. The ADA also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations that will allow employees with disabilities to do their jobs. If you work for a smaller employer, you may still be protected: Many states and local governments have also passed laws prohibiting workplace disability discrimination; some of these laws apply to smaller employers.

You might have a strong legal claim of disability discrimination under the ADA if:

  • Your employer fired you, refused to promote you, or otherwise treated you badly because of your disability. As long as you can perform the essential duties of your job, with or without a reasonable accommodation, your employer may not treat you differently because of your disability. An employer may not, for example, refuse to promote you because you use a wheelchair, or fire you because you were diagnosed with cancer, lupus, or multiple sclerosis.
  • You faced workplace harassment based on your disability. If your coworkers constantly belittle and make fun of your disability, or your manager makes disparaging comments about employees with disabilities, that might constitute a hostile work environment. An employee is facing illegal workplace harassment if he or she is subjected to unwelcome conduct or comments that are so severe or pervasive that they affect the terms and conditions of the job.
  • Your employer made job decisions based on flawed assumptions about your disability. For example, if an employer fires an employee when she reveals that she has bipolar disorder, based on a biased misconception that employees with mental disabilities are prone to violence, that would be discriminatory.
  • Your employer refused to provide a reasonable accommodation. If you need changes to your workspace, work rules, schedule, or other working conditions in order to do your job, you should request an accommodation from your employer. Your employer is legally obligated to provide a reasonable accommodation unless doing so would create undue hardship (substantial expense or burden, given your employer's size and resources). Although your employer doesn't have to provide the exact accommodation you request, it must work with you to come up with an accommodation that will be effective. If your employer ignores your accommodation request, refuses to provide any accommodation, or provides an accommodation that doesn't work, that violates the ADA.

These are just a few of the ways employers violate the ADA. If you believe you are facing workplace discrimination based on your disability, talk to an experienced employment lawyer to find out if you have a legal claim.

What to Do If You Are Facing Disability Discrimination

If you believe you are being mistreated at work because of your disability, your first step should be to raise the issue within your company, if you are still employed. Follow your company's complaint policy to report the problems you are facing. If your company doesn't have a complaint policy, raise your concerns with the human resources department, personnel office, or a company officer. Put your complaint in writing, so you have a record of when you complained and what you said.

You aren't legally required to make an internal complaint within your company. However, there are benefits to doing so. Most importantly, the company may take action to solve the problem, which would save you the time and trouble of making your claims through the legal system. If the company doesn't take appropriate action, you will at least be able to show that you brought the problem to their attention and gave them an opportunity to solve it. This type of evidence might convince a judge or jury to award you more in money damages, if you later decide to sue.

Filing a Charge of Disability Discrimination

If you aren't satisfied with your employer's response to your complaint, or if you are no longer employed, you should consider filing a discrimination charge with the EEOC or your state's fair employment practices agency. The EEOC is the federal agency responsible for enforcing the ADA and other workplace discrimination laws. When it passed these laws, Congress decided that employees who want to sue their employers for discrimination must first make their complaint to a government agency. Only if the agency could not or does not resolve the problem may an employee go to court and file a lawsuit. The purpose of this requirement is to keep claims that can be settled quickly out of the court system, and to give employers and employees a chance to resolve their disputes in a less formal setting.

Many states also have laws prohibiting disability discrimination. And, most states have a work-sharing agreement with the EEOC, which means that if you file a claim with your state agency, it will automatically also be considered filed with the EEOC (and vice-versa). This may be important if your state law is different from the ADA. For example, your state law may give you the right to greater money damages if you win, or may give you longer to file a charge than the ADA. In these circumstances, you will want to make sure that you preserve your right to sue under both state and federal law. An experienced employment lawyer can help you sort this out.

To file a charge, you can go to your local EEOC office in person and complete a form during an interview. The EEOC does not take complaints online or over the phone. You can also mail in a complaint that includes names and contact information for you and your employer, the size of the employer, a description of what happened to you (including the dates when key events took place), why you believe you were discriminated against, and your signature. The agency will contact you if it needs more information. (Find out more about the charge-filing process, including information on where to file.)

You have 300 days to file your EEOC charge if your state also has a law that prohibits disability discrimination. If not, you may have only 180 days to file. (Your state's deadline may be different.) The clock starts on the day when your employer discriminated against you by, for example, firing you or denying your request for a reasonable accommodation. These are strict deadlines; if you miss them, you cannot proceed with your claim.

Once you file your charge, the agency will notify your employer and ask it to respond. The agency may investigate by, for example, talking to other employees, asking your employer for documents, and so on. The agency may try to settle your claims or may invite you and your employer to a mediation session in which you can try to negotiate a resolution.

If you are not able to resolve the claim with your employer, once the agency has finished processing your charge, it will send you a "right to sue" letter. This letter states that you have met the requirement of filing a charge with the agency and are now allowed to file a lawsuit if you wish. Once you get this letter, you must act fast: You may have as few as 90 days after receiving it to file a lawsuit.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you think your employer is discriminating against you because of your disability, your first step should be to talk to an experienced employment lawyer. A lawyer can help you determine whether your employer has violated the ADA or your state's disability discrimination law, try to negotiate a settlement with your employer, help you make an internal complaint, assist you in filing a charge with the EEOC, and represent you in a lawsuit.

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