February 14, 2004
The Plain Dealer
You've suffered an injury or perhaps been diagnosed with a serious illness. As a result, your employer thinks you won't be able to handle the requirements of your job. Although you dis agree, he's not convinced, and you're fired. Is that legal?
The general rule in Ohio is that your employer can fire you for any reason or no reason at all. But before you get fired up at the unfairness of this, let's look at the exceptions. For example, you cannot be fired due to your race, religion, gender or age. In addition, the federal Americans With Disabilities Act and a parallel Ohio law prohibit job discrimination based on a person's disability.
You might be surprised to learn that the disability laws even protect persons who are not disabled. A recent Ohio case resulted in a ruling that the protections of the disability laws could kick in even when an employer fires a worker on the mistaken belief that he or she was disabled.
To prove a case of unlawful discrimination, a person generally must show that he:
In November 1999, Patricia Fitzmaurice informed her employer that she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. At the time, she was manager of the company's Medical Mutual account. Under her leadership, the account grew, and the company was pleased with her performance.
But a month after Fitzmaurice disclosed her illness, the company removed her from the account-manager position and assigned her to less challenging tasks (with less pay). While the company claimed that she asked for the job change, Fitzmaurice disagreed. She testified that her boss told her he was removing her for her own good, to reduce her stress.
After the person who took over the Medical Mutual account left, Fitzmaurice asked to be reassigned to her old job. But her request was denied. According to Fitzmaurice, she was told that she was no longer qualified for the job and subsequently was terminated.
She sued the company for disability discrimination, but her case was thrown out of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court without her being allowed a trial. While the basis for the court's ruling is not clear, it appears that the court determined that Fitzmaurice was not disabled. Fitzmaurice presented no evidence that she was unable to perform any major life activities. In fact, she said that she could take care of herself and perform all the functions of her former job.
On appeal, the 8th Ohio District Court of Appeals (Cuyahoga County) last month reinstated Fitzmaurice's case. Although the appeals court determined that she was not disabled, it ruled that Fitzmaurice did not actually have to be disabled to get the protection of the disability laws. If the company regarded her as being disabled and demoted or fired her as a result, then the company violated the law.
No one at the company directly told Fitzmaurice that her multiple sclerosis was a factor in its employment decisions. But she was doing well, and was highly regarded, until she revealed her illness. Suddenly, she was no longer deemed able to handle the job. That was certainly enough indirect evidence to allow Fitzmaurice to have her day in court.
So you do not have to be disabled to gain the protection of the federal and Ohio laws against discrimination. In general, if you are fired, demoted, not promoted or otherwise treated adversely in your job because the company believes you to be disabled, the company might have broken the law.
Armond Budish is a partner in the law firm of Budish & Solomon in
Copyright © 2004, The Plain Dealer