Frequently Asked Employment Law Questions - Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act, also known as the ADA, is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against an individual because of his or her disability.  The protections under the ADA do not apply to every person or every situation.  A person must be a qualified individual with a disability, as defined by the ADA, in order to be eligible for an employment ADA claim.

The ADA defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially interferes with one or more major life functions.  Under the ADA, examples of major life activities include caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working, as well as the operation of a major bodily function.  Persons who are perceived as having such impairment or have a record of such impairment are also protected by the ADA.

A qualified individual is a person who is able to perform the essential functions of his or her job with or without reasonable accommodation.  Thus, employees who have disabilities and are unable to perform their essential job functions (with or without reasonable accommodation) cannot have viable ADA employment claims.

The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability against a qualified individual with a disability.  Prohibited adverse employment actions include employment termination, discrimination in job application procedures, failure to hire, failure to promote, as well as discrimination in job training, employee compensation, and other terms and conditions of employment.

Under the ADA, an employer is also obligated to provide reasonable accommodations to employees and job applicants for their known physical or mental limitations.  A reasonable accommodation is essentially a job modification that enables a qualified individual with a disability to perform his or her job. 

Examples of reasonable accommodation under the ADA include building and facility accessibility, job restructuring, modified work schedules, reassignment to vacant positions, equipment modification, new equipment, and a host of other options. 

However, an employer is not obligated to change the essential functions of a job as a reasonable accommodation, or to provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee who is not a qualified individual. 

Every accommodation situation is unique and must be evaluated based upon its own specific circumstances.  When an employee requests a workplace accommodation from an employer, the employer is required to engage in an interactive process with the employee, in order to explore reasonable accommodation options.  Communication is the key for both the employee and the employer when it comes to reasonable accommodation.

The duty to accommodate does not apply to an employer who can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of its business.  Undue hardship is defined by the ADA as an action requiring significant difficulty or expense, in view of its nature and cost, the financial resources of the employer, the size of the business, number of employees, type of operation and facility, and a variety of other factors.  Undue hardship analysis is also circumstance specific.

The ADA also protects an employee who has a relationship with a person who has a disability.  It is unlawful for an employer to terminate an employee because he or she has, for instance, a parent or spouse with a disability.  However, in a relational disability situation, the ADA does not require the employer to provide reasonable accommodation to the employee to take time off to care for the other person.  Of course, in this type of scenario, the employer must be cognizant of its obligations under other employment laws (such as the FMLA).

Merely because an employee is a qualified individual with a disability doesn’t mean that he or she has a claim for disability discrimination.  Those are just the preliminary ADA hurdles for the employee. 

In order to establish a valid claim for ADA employment discrimination, the employee must also prove that he or she was terminated or subjected to other tangible adverse job action by the employer because of his or her disability.  The elements, burden of proof, and burden-shifting analysis are akin to those in other types of employment discrimination claims.  Proof of intentional discrimination is essential. 

Additionally, a qualified individual with a known disability may have a separate ADA claim for an employer’s refusal to provide reasonable accommodation.

An employee who prevails in an ADA disability discrimination claim may recover back pay, front pay, lost benefits, compensatory damages for emotion distress and punitive damages, as well as attorneys’ fees and litigation costs.  Equitable relief such as reasonable accommodation and reinstatement of employment are also available under the ADA.