The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits disability discrimination in the workplace. An employee who wants to sue under the ADA may not go straight to court, however. Instead, the employee must first file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or a similar state agency and get a right to sue letter.
Private employers with at least 15 employees must comply with the ADA. Under the law, employers may not discriminate against an employee who has a disability or a history of disability, or who is perceived by the employer -- even incorrectly -- as having a disability. An employer who refuses to hire an employee because he or she has a disability, doesn't consider employees with disabilities for promotions or other job opportunities, or selects employees with disabilities for layoff has violated the ADA.
A disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, including major bodily functions. For example, an employee with a visual impairment may be substantially limited in the major life activity of seeing. Or, an employee with cancer may have bodily functions (such as proper cell growth or the proper functioning of the hematic system) that are significantly impaired. These employees would qualify as having a disability under the law.
Employers must provide reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals with disabilities. Someone is qualified if he or she has the necessary prerequisites for the position (such as education, experience, and licenses) and can perform the job's essential functions, with or without an accommodation. Accommodating an employee means providing assistance or making changes in the job or workplace that will enable the employee to do the job. For example, an employer might lower the height of a desktop to accommodate an employee who uses a wheelchair; provide TDD telephone equipment for a worker whose hearing is impaired, or allow an employee whose anti-depressant medication makes him groggy in the morning to work a later shift.
If you believe you have been discriminated against because of your disability, you should speak to an experienced employment lawyer. If the lawyer believes you have a good case against your employer, the lawyer may suggest negotiating with the employer. If negotiations fail or aren't a good strategy in your situation, the next step is to file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency responsible for interpreting and enforcing federal antidiscrimination laws. If your state has entered into a work-sharing agreement with the EEOC, you may instead file a charge with your state agency. In these states, a charge filed with either agency is simultaneously filed with the other automatically, to protect your rights under both state and federal law.
You must file a charge within 180 days of the discriminatory act; this deadline is extended to 300 days if your state or local government also has a law prohibiting disability discrimination. Once you file a charge, the agency will process it. The agency may investigate, dismiss the claim, try to mediate a settlement with your employer, or even decide to litigate on your behalf (this is exceedingly rare). Once the agency is done, it will issue you a right to sue letter, which gives you the right to file a lawsuit in court.
You may request a right to sue letter from the EEOC at any time. If more than 180 days have passed since you filed your charge, the EEOC must issue you a letter. The agency will also issue you a letter if it believes it won't be able to complete its investigation within 180 days.
After you get your right to sue letter, you have only 90 days to file a lawsuit under the ADA. If you don't already have a lawyer, you'll want to retain one right away, in order to preserve your legal rights.