Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with the goal of removing barriers that prevent qualified job applicants and employees with disabilities from enjoying the same employment opportunities that are available to those without disabilities. The ADA promotes work environments in which job seekers and employees are judged on the merits of their work rather than stigmas and biases against individuals with disabilities. The ADA affords disabled individuals an equal opportunity to earn a living and become contributing members of society.
The Prevalence of Disability Discrimination in the Workplace
Unfortunately, disability discrimination remains far too common in the workplace. Between 1997 and 2018, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received approximately 456,174 complaints alleging disability discrimination under the ADA. During the same period, complainants alleging disability discrimination received monetary benefits totaling more than $1.6 billion through the EEOC’s administrative process.
The Harmful Consequences of Employment Discrimination
Employment discrimination poses a real and significant harm to the people discriminated against and to our society as a whole. Victims of workplace bias often feel frustrated and humiliated. These feelings can harm the victim’s psychological wellbeing by causing depression and anxiety. Employers that tolerate discriminatory behavior in the workplace are often less productive, have higher employee absenteeism, and experience higher employee turnover—all of which are economically costly to society.
The Law Prohibits Employment Discrimination Based on Disability
Disability discrimination is illegal under both federal and state law. At the federal level, the ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against a qualified employee or job applicant with a disability because of their disability in regard to:
- job application procedures;
- hiring decisions;
- promotion decisions and other opportunities for career advancement;
- firing or layoff decisions;
- pay decisions;
- job training and instruction; and
- other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.
This form of discrimination is known as “disparate treatment.” The ADA does not cover employees employed by the federal government or job applicants seeking employment with the federal government. Instead, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 covers federal employees and applicants with disabilities. The Rehabilitation Act largely mirrors the ADA.
At the state level, the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA) similarly prohibits employers from discriminating against employees and job applicants because of their disability. These laws also prohibit employers from discriminating against individuals because of their relationship with someone who is disabled. So, for example, an employer may not refuse to hire a qualified job applicant because her husband has a disability.
Claims for “Disparate Treatment” Disability Discrimination
To establish a claim for disparate treatment under the ADA, a plaintiff must show that they (1) suffer from a disability; (2) are qualified for the job at issue; (3) were subjected to an “adverse employment action”; (4) because of their disability.
What qualifies as a “disability” under the ADA?
Under the ADA, an individual has a “disability” if they:
- have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of their major life activities;
- have a history of physical or mental impairment; or
- are regarded as having such an impairment.
An individual has a “physical impairment” if they have any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more body systems. A physical impairment can include medical conditions that affect the following body systems: neurological, musculoskeletal, special-sense organs, respiratory (including speech organs) system, cardiovascular system, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, immune, circulatory, hemic, lymphatic, skin, and endocrine.
A “mental impairment” means any mental or psychological disorder, such as an intellectual disability (formerly termed “mental retardation”), organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.
“Major life activities” include, but are not limited to caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, sitting, reaching, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, interacting with others, and working. The term also includes the operation of a major bodily function, including functions of the immune system, special sense organs and skin; normal cell growth; and digestive, genitourinary, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, cardiovascular, endocrine, hemic, lymphatic, musculoskeletal, reproductive functions, and individual organs.
Under the ADA, a person is said to have a record of impairment if they have a history of, or have been misclassified as having, a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.
Finally, a person is “regarded as having such an impairment” if he or she:
- has a physical or mental impairment that does not substantially limit major life activities, but is treated by Defendant as having a substantially limiting impairment;
- has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, but only because of the attitudes of others toward the impairment; or
- has no actual impairment, but is treated by the employer as having a substantially limiting impairment.
What is the test for determining whether a person is “qualified” for the job at issue?
A person is “qualified” for a particular job if, with or without reasonable accommodations, they can perform the essential functions of the job. “Essential functions” are those that are fundamental to the job at issue. The term does not include the marginal functions of a job. In deciding whether a function is essential, courts consider a variety of factors, including:
- the reasons the job exists;
- the number of employees an employer has to perform that kind of work;
- the degree of specialization the job requires;
- the employer’s judgment as to which functions are essential;
- written job descriptions prepared before advertising or interviewing applicants for the position;
- the consequences of not requiring an employee to satisfy that function; and
- the work experience of others who held the position.
What is an “adverse employment action”?
An “adverse employment action” refers to an employer’s unfavorable action or decision related to:
- work assignments,
- employee discipline,
- training and instruction,
- recruitment, and
- any other term or condition of employment.
There are a wide variety of actions and decisions that may qualify as an adverse employment action or decision. If you’re unsure whether you have experienced an adverse employment action on the basis of your national origin, contact the Wagoner Law Firm today for a free case evaluation.
Claims for “Disparate Impact” Disability Discrimination
Both federal and state law in Texas prohibit employment practices that are not intended to discriminate, but in fact have a disproportionately adverse effect on qualified individuals with a disability. This is known as “disparate impact” discrimination because the employment practice, although neutral on its face, negatively impacts disabled applicants and employees.
Disability Discrimination Claims Based on an Employer’s Failure to Accommodate
To establish a failure-to-accommodate claim, a plaintiff must not only show that they have a qualified “disability” under the ADA as discussed above, the plaintiff must also show that their employer knew about their disability and the resulting limitations, but failed to make reasonable accommodations for such the limitations.
A job applicant or employee who needs a disability accommodation at work must inform their employer of their needs and explain how their disability limits their work in some way. They must also explain to the employer the nature of their impairment and cannot assume that the employer will already know or understand it.
Employer’s Failure to Make Reasonable Accommodations
An employer violates the ADA if it fails to make reasonable accommodations for the employee or job applicant’s disability limitations. A “reasonable accommodation” is one that is ordinarily reasonable, or reasonable in most cases. Reasonable accommodations may include, for example:
- making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities;
- job restructuring;
- modifying an employee’s work schedule’;
- allowing an employee to work on a part-time basis;
- reassigning an employee to a vacant position;
- acquiring or modifying equipment or devices;
- making appropriate adjustments or modifications to examinations, training materials, or policies;
- providing qualified readers or interpreters; and
- providing other similar accommodations for individuals with disabilities.
The ADA does not require that employer make unreasonable accommodations for disabled employees, only reasonable ones. A requested accommodation is unreasonable if it would impose an “undue hardship” on the employer. An “undue hardship” is an action requiring significant difficulty or expense to implement. In deciding whether a requested accommodation would be too expensive or difficult, courts have considered the following factors:
- the nature and cost of providing the accommodation;
- the employer’s financial resources and ability to pay for the accommodation without jeopardizing its business;
- the number of people who work at the particular facility or facilities involved in the accommodation;
- the impact that providing the accommodation would have on the facility’s business operations;
- the number, type, and location of the employer’s facilities that would have to provide the accommodation; and
- the composition, structure, and functions of the employer’s workforce.
Courts may consider a variety of other factors in deciding whether a particular accommodation would impose an “undue hardship” on an employer.
When to Speak to an Employment Lawyer About Disability Discrimination
If you believe that you have been discriminated against on the basis of your disability or an employer has failed to reasonably accommodate your disability at work, it’s imperative that you take action immediately. Keep detailed notes and records of the actions taken by your employer, the individuals involved, dates, times, places, conversations, and any other relevant details. Having detailed notes, copies of relevant emails and documents, and records of the events that transpired at work may improve your chances of achieving a successful outcome in your case.
Additionally, hiring a knowledgeable and experienced employment lawyer may relieve stress and help you achieve the best outcome possible in your case. An employment lawyer may advise you on your rights, help you prepare your EEOC complaint in a manner that preserves your rights, ensure that your filing deadlines are met, investigate and collect the evidence that you will later need to prove your claims, and represent you in a lawsuit.
Because of the complicated administrative process, short filing deadlines, and complex web of employment laws that might apply to your case, victims of disability discrimination should contact the Wagoner Law Firm without delay for a free case evaluation.