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

If your employer has discriminated against you and violated the ADA, you can file a complaint.  Here are the steps to take.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law

Has your employer discriminated against you because of your disability? You might have a legal claim against your employer if your employer has taken any of the following actions against you because of your disability:

  • fired you
  • disciplined you
  • demoted you or denied you a promotion
  • denied a job accommodation you needed, or
  • otherwise treated you differently from employees without disabilities.

If you want to take action to enforce your legal rights, 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 first ask your employer to investigate your claims and try to settle your dispute.

Below, we describe some common violations of a federal law called the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). We also discuss what to do if you're facing disability discrimination and how to file a complaint.

Disability Discrimination: Violations of the ADA

Title I of the ADA covers employers with at least 15 employees who have worked for at least 20 weeks in the current or preceding calendar year (42 U.S.C. § 12111(5)). (You might still be protected from discrimination if you work for a smaller employer, because many states and local governments also have laws prohibiting workplace disability discrimination. And some of these laws apply to smaller employers.)

The ADA prohibits discrimination against employees (and job applicants) based on disability. The Act also requires employers to provide job accommodations (changes) that will allow employees with disabilities to do their jobs (42 U.S.C. § 12121(b)(5)(A)).

You might have a solid legal claim of disability discrimination under the ADA if your employer violated any of the law's provisions. Here are four of the most common ways employers violate the ADA.

1) You Were Fired or Treated Differently Because of Your Disability

As long as you can perform the essential duties of your job—with or without a reasonable accommodation—an employer can't treat you differently than other employees (or job applicants) because of your disability. For example, your employer can't refuse to promote you because you use a wheelchair or fire you because you were diagnosed with a serious illness like cancer or multiple sclerosis.

2) 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. And according to the EEOC, it's illegal for an employer to allow conduct that creates a work environment that's intimidating, hostile, or offensive to a reasonable person.

Petty comments or occasional slights generally don't rise to the level of illegal harassment. But if you're subjected to unwelcome conduct or comments at work that are so severe or pervasive that they affect the terms and conditions of your job, you might have a sound legal claim.

3) Your Employer Made Decisions Based on Assumptions About Your Disability

Under the ADA, your employer can't base job decisions like hiring and firing practices or promotions based on assumptions about your disability.

For example, let's say your employer fires an employee who's revealed a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. If the firing is based on a biased misconception that employees with mental disabilities are prone to violence, that would be discriminatory.

(Learn more about how the ADA protects employees with mental disabilities.)

4) Your Employer Refused to Provide a Reasonable Accommodation

You should request an accommodation (change) from your employer if you need one to continue to do your job. These could include changes to things like:

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, the company must work with you to come up with an accommodation that will be effective. It's a violation of the ADA if your employer:

  • ignores your accommodation request
  • refuses to provide any accommodation, or
  • provides an accommodation that doesn't work.

What to Do If You're Facing Disability Discrimination

If you believe you're being mistreated at work because of your disability, your first step should be to raise the issue within your company—if you still work there. Follow your company's complaint policy process to report the problem.

If your company doesn't have a complaint policy, bring your concerns to one of the following:

  • the human resources department
  • the 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. But there are benefits to doing so. Most importantly, the company might 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'll 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 money (damages) if you later decide to sue.

If You Have to File a Charge of Disability Discrimination

If you believe you're facing workplace discrimination based on your disability, talk to an employment lawyer to find out if you should file a legal claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The EEOC is the federal agency that enforces the ADA and other federal workplace discrimination laws. If you aren't satisfied with your employer's response to your complaint or you're no longer employed, you can file a discrimination charge with the EEOC or your state's fair employment practices agency (FEPA).

Filing a Complaint with the EEOC and Your State

Before you can sue an employer for discrimination in court, you must first file a complaint with the EEOC or a state FEPA agency. Only if the agency can't or doesn't resolve the problem can you go to court and file a lawsuit. This requirement keeps claims that can be settled quickly out of the court system and allows employers and employees to resolve their disputes in a less formal setting.

Many states also have laws prohibiting disability discrimination. And most state FEPAs have work-sharing agreements with the EEOC that allow for dual filing—meaning that when you file a complaint with a FEPA, the state agency will also file your complaint with the EEOC, and vice versa. Dual filing can be important if your state law differs from the ADA.

For example, your state law might allow you to collect more in damages if you win, or it might give you longer to file a charge than the ADA. In these circumstances, you'll 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.

How to File an Employment Discrimination Charge With the EEOC

The fastest way to get your complaint started is to submit an online inquiry using the EEOC's public portal. The agency uses the online questionnaire to determine if EEOC is the right agency to handle your complaint.

You can also use the portal to make an appointment to file a discrimination charge in person at your local EEOC office. Once there, you'll complete a form during an interview.

You also have the option to mail in a complaint that includes the following:

  • 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 EEOC will contact you if the agency needs to interview you or 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 prohibiting disability discrimination. If your state doesn't have such a law, you generally have only 180 days to file. (Your state's deadline might 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—meaning you can't proceed with your claim if you miss them.

What Happens After You File an EEOC Complaint?

Once you file your charge with the EEOC or the state fair employment practices agency, the agency will notify your employer and ask for a response. The agency might investigate by talking to other employees, asking your employer for documents, and so on. The agency could try to settle your claims or invite you and your employer to a mediation session so you can try to negotiate a resolution.

If you can't resolve the claim with your employer, once the EEOC has finished processing your charge, it will send you a "right to sue" letter. This letter states that you've 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, as you might have as few as 90 days after receiving it to file a lawsuit.

When to Talk to an Employment Discrimination 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. Your lawyer can also:

  • 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.

Although you may receive a bill for legal fees for help filing your EEOC complaint, you might not get a bill if you have to sue your employer. Under the ADA, an employer who loses a discrimination lawsuit can be required to pay the employee's legal expenses (42 U.S.C. § 12205).

(Learn more about how to find and hire an employment discrimination lawyer.)

Updated August 11, 2023

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