What is Disability Discrimination?

Disability discrimination under Federal and Texas Laws

When it comes to disability discrimination in Texas, you should know about 3 laws:  ADA, ADAAA, and TCHRA.   The ADA and the Americans With Disabilities Amendments Act (“ADAAA”) contain the same definition of disability, i.e., a person with a disability is one who has “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” who has “a record of such impairment,” or one who is “regarded as” having such an impairment.  Employment lawyers who deal with discrimination lawsuits usually consider claims under all three statutes.

The Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (“TCHRA”) defines a “disability” as is defined as (1) a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits at least one major life activity of that individual; (2) a record of such impairment; or (3) being regarded as having such an impairment.

The ADA prohibits an employer from discriminating against a “qualified individual on the basis of disability.”

The burden of proof in a disability discrimination lawsuit

In a discriminatory-termination action under the ADA, the employee may either present direct evidence that she was discriminated against because of her disability or alternatively proceed under the burden-shifting analysis first articulated in a famous case called McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973).  That’s two different approaches.   For the second approach, an employee who sues the employer for disability discrimination must prove a prima facia case.    To establish a prima facie case of discrimination under the ADA, an employee must demonstrate that (1) he/ she is disabled, has a record of having a disability, or is regarded as disabled, (2) he/she is qualified for the job, (3) he/she was subjected to an adverse employment action on account of his/her disability or the perception of his/her disability, and (4) he/she was replaced by or treated less favorably than non-disabled employees.

If the employee is able to establish his or her prima facie case, the employer can rebut the resulting presumption of discrimination by providing a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action.

The burden then shifts back to the employee/plaintiff to show that the reason is pretextual.  A plaintiff may establish pretext ‘by showing that a discriminatory motive more likely motivated’ his/her employer’s decision, such as through evidence of disparate treatment, ‘or that [her employer’s] explanation is unworthy of credence.’”

What is a major life activity?

Anyone that works in the area of employment law will hearing the term major life activity. This is one of the ways to prove a disability case.  Major life activities refer to those activities that are of central importance to most people’s everyday lives. The term “major life activities” means “functions such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.”  While not specifically listed in the EEOC regulations, major life activities can include lifting, reaching, sitting and standing.

The term “substantially limits” means either (a) an inability “to perform a major life activity that the average person in the general population can perform” or (b) a significant restriction “as to the condition, manner, or duration under which an individual can perform a particular major life activity as compared to the condition, manner, or duration under which the average person in the general population can perform that same major life activity.” Watson, 269 F. App’x at 500. Factors to be considered in determining whether an impairment is substantially limiting are: (1) the nature and severity of the impairment, (2) its duration or expected duration, and (3) its actual or expected permanent or long-term impact.

Factors to be considered in determining whether an impairment is substantially limiting are: (1) the nature and severity of the impairment, (2) its duration or expected duration, and (3) its actual or expected permanent or long-term impact.

What is Regarded as disabled?

Simply having an impairment, if it does not substantially limited a major life activity, does not make one disabled under the statute.  An employee may still sue for disability discrimination if the employer regarded her as a disabled individual.  Being Regarded as disable is a common legal claim for employees with mental health issues. Whether it’s depression, Schizophrenia, or other mental conditions, many employees with these conditions are treated differently by their co-workers and employers. A person is “regarded as” having a disability if she “establishes that [s]he … has been subjected to an action prohibited under this chapter because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity.” 42 U.S.C. § 12102(3)(A) (ADA statute).

Under the “regarded as” prong, a plaintiff only needs to show that her employer perceived her as having an impairment.

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