If you’ve recently lost your job and suspect it’s because you requested a reasonable accommodation for your disability, you’re likely feeling a mix of emotions—anger, confusion, and maybe even helplessness. You’re not alone, and what you’re going through could very well be wrongful termination due to disability discrimination.
Understanding your rights and the legal options available to you is crucial in situations like this. It’s not just about getting justice; it’s about safeguarding your career, your reputation, and your financial stability.
This guide is specifically tailored for Massachusetts residents and aims to provide you with the essential information you need to navigate the complex landscape of employment law. From identifying what counts as a “reasonable accommodation” to choosing the right attorney for your case, we’ve got you covered.
What Qualifies as a “Reasonable Accommodation”?
In legal terms, a “reasonable accommodation” is a modification or adjustment to a job or work environment that enables a qualified applicant or employee with a disability to participate in the application process or to perform essential job functions. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides a framework for what counts as a reasonable accommodation.
In Massachusetts, the term “handicap” is used to describe a condition that substantially limits one or more major life activities. According to G.L. c. 151B, a major life activity includes “working,” aligning with the ADA definition as well (29 C.F.R. s. 1630.2(i); 2 EEOC Compliance Manual s.902).
Examples of reasonable accommodations could include:
- Providing a sign language interpreter for a deaf employee.
- Modifying work schedules to accommodate medical appointments.
- Installing ramps or other accessibility features for wheelchair users.
It’s worth noting that conditions like depression and bipolar disorder are considered handicaps under Massachusetts law, specifically G.L. c. 151B. This was established in the case of Gaston v. City of Springfield and Gary Cassanelli, where bipolar disorder was recognized as a handicap that substantially limits major life activities.
Recognizing Disability Discrimination in the Workplace
Signs That You May Be Facing Discrimination
Discrimination isn’t always overt; sometimes, it’s subtle and insidious. Here are some signs that you might be facing disability discrimination at work:
- Your requests for reasonable accommodation are ignored or denied without valid reason.
- You’re excluded from meetings, projects, or social events without explanation.
- You face disciplinary actions that seem disproportionate or unwarranted.
How Discrimination Can Manifest Subtly
Discrimination can also manifest in less obvious ways, such as:
- Passive-aggressive comments or “jokes” about your condition.
- Sudden changes in your job responsibilities without clear justification.
- Receiving poorer performance reviews without a decline in your work quality.
If you believe you’re being discriminated against, it’s crucial to document these instances. The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) is authorized under M.G.L. c. 151B, § 5 to order remedies like back pay and damages for emotional distress if discrimination is proven. Factors considered for such damages include the nature and severity of the harm, the duration of suffering, and any attempts to mitigate the harm (Stonehill College v. MCAD).
The “Fake Reason” Trap: Identifying Pretext
In employment law, “pretext” refers to a false reason given by an employer to hide the real motive behind an action, such as termination. Essentially, it’s a cover-up. If you’ve been fired and suspect that the reason provided isn’t the real one, you could be facing a pretextual termination.
How Employers Might Use Fake Reasons to Cover Up Discrimination
Employers may resort to giving fake reasons to mask discriminatory practices. For instance, they might cite “poor performance” or “company restructuring” as the reason for your termination when, in reality, it’s due to your request for a reasonable accommodation. This is a form of employer retaliation and is illegal under both federal and Massachusetts state law. If you believe you’ve been terminated under pretext, it’s crucial to consult with an experienced employment law attorney to explore your options.
First Steps After Termination
What Immediate Actions to Take After Being Terminated:
The moments following a termination can be overwhelming, but it’s crucial to act swiftly. First, request a written statement outlining the reasons for your termination. This can be invaluable later if those reasons change, indicating possible pretext. Secondly, consult an employment law attorney, especially one well-versed in Massachusetts law and cases involving the MCAD.
Importance of Documentation and Gathering Evidence
Documentation is your best friend in legal disputes. Start by gathering all employment records, emails, and any other correspondence that could be relevant to your case. If there were witnesses to discriminatory behavior or conversations, make a note of them. Remember, the MCAD considers factors like the nature and severity of the harm and any attempts to mitigate it when awarding damages (Stonehill College v. MCAD).
Filing an EEOC Complaint: Do You Need To?
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a federal agency responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against employees based on various factors, including disability. While Massachusetts has its own anti-discrimination laws and enforcement agency (MCAD), the EEOC provides another avenue for redress. The EEOC can investigate your case, attempt to mediate a resolution between you and your employer, and even take legal action on your behalf.
When and How to File a Complaint
Timing is crucial when it comes to filing an EEOC complaint. You typically have 180 days from the day the discrimination took place to file a complaint, although this period can be extended to 300 days if a state or local agency enforces a law that prohibits employment discrimination on the same basis.
To file a complaint, you’ll need to submit a formal Charge of Discrimination. This can be done in person at an EEOC office or by mail. The charge must include specific details about the discriminatory acts, including dates and parties involved. Once filed, the EEOC will notify your employer within 10 days and begin an investigation. If they find evidence of discrimination, they may file a lawsuit against your employer or give you a “Right to Sue” letter, allowing you to take legal action.
Choosing the Right Attorney
When you’re facing wrongful termination due to disability discrimination, choosing the right attorney can make all the difference. One of the most crucial factors is specialization in employment law. Employment law is a complex field with its own set of rules, regulations, and case law. An attorney who specializes in this area will be up-to-date with the latest legal developments and will have experience dealing with similar cases. They’ll know how to navigate both the MCAD and EEOC systems, giving you the best chance at a favorable outcome.
Legal Action: What to Expect
Once you’ve chosen an attorney, the litigation process begins. This usually starts with a demand letter to your former employer, outlining your case and what you seek in terms of remedies. If that doesn’t lead to a resolution, the next step is filing a formal complaint, either with the MCAD, EEOC, or directly in court. This initiates the discovery process, where both sides gather evidence. Eventually, the case may go to trial, although many cases are settled before that point.
Potential Outcomes and Remedies
The outcomes can vary widely, depending on the specifics of your case. Remedies can include back pay, front pay, reinstatement, or damages for emotional distress. Under M.G.L. c. 151B, § 5, the MCAD is authorized to order such remedies, which should be fair, reasonable, and proportionate to the distress suffered.
Risks and Costs
Legal action isn’t cheap. There are attorney’s fees, court costs, and other expenses to consider. Some attorneys work on a contingency basis, meaning they only get paid if you win. However, you’ll still be responsible for other costs, like filing fees and expenses for expert witnesses.
Talk About the Emotional and Reputational Risks Involved
Pursuing a lawsuit can be emotionally draining. The process is often long and stressful, requiring you to relive unpleasant experiences during discovery and trial. There’s also a reputational risk. Future employers might be hesitant to hire someone who has sued a previous employer, even if the lawsuit was justified.
Navigating the complexities of employment law can be daunting, especially when you’re facing wrongful termination due to disability discrimination. This guide aims to arm you with the essential knowledge you need to take action. From understanding what qualifies as a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA, to recognizing signs of disability discrimination in the workplace, we’ve got you covered. Learn how to identify employer “pretext,” gather crucial evidence, and take the first steps after termination. We also delve into the role of the EEOC, how to choose the right Massachusetts attorney, and what to expect in terms of legal action, risks, and costs. With this guide, you’ll be better prepared to navigate the legal system and fight for your rights.
The following article was written by Attorney Deirdre Clegg who has been practicing plaintiff-side employment law since 2006.