Disability Discrimination in Massachusetts

About a year and a half ago, I had a client come into my office to tell me she had been placed on indefinite suspension at her job because she had been diagnosed with a disability.  After we filed her complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), she was finally provided a letter of termination (simply making it official). It took a lot of work, as well as a lot of patience, but ultimately we were recently able to negotiate a very good resolution for her case before the need for a trial.  She had a positive outcome to her case. But there are many disabled employees here in Massachusetts who are not as fortunate because they are unaware of their rights.

The disability discrimination laws in Massachusetts make it unlawful to terminate an employee because of a disability, so long as that employee is able to perform the essential functions of his/her job, either with or without an accommodation.  What this means is if an employee is able to perform his/her job, even if they need a reasonable accommodation to do so, it is unlawful for an employer to terminate the employee simply because they have a disability. Rather, the employer is required by the law to hold an “Interactive Inquiry” with the employee, to determine what, if any, reasonable accommodations are available that would assist the employee in performing the essential functions of his/her job.  The question of reasonableness is one of those that, unfortunately, keeps employment attorneys employed. What may be a reasonable accommodation for a large corporation like Apple or Microsoft may not be as reasonable for the small company with only a dozen employees.

The MCAD uses a burden-shifting paradigm when determining liability in disability discrimination cases.  First, the burden is on the complainant to establish his/her case. After the complainant has established his/her case, the burden then shifts to the employer to provide a legitimate business reason for the termination and/or failure to accommodate.  They do this in what is called a position statement. If they are able to provide legitimate business reasons for the termination, the burden shifts back to the complainant to prove the alleged legitimate business reasons of the employer are not true, but rather are a pretext to conceal the fact that the termination and/or failure to accommodate was in fact due to the disability.  This is, obviously, an extremely truncated description of the process, and your lawyer will be able to provide a more in-depth analysis as to how this burden-shifting applies in your particular case.

In the case I mentioned above, the employer refused to provide an accommodation for my client, despite the availability of light duty assignments and other very reasonable accommodations.  Their argument was the same argument I hear repeatedly from employers, “Any accommodation would have caused an undue burden on the business.” In most cases, however, employers don’t even bother to hold an interactive inquiry so it is impossible for them to declare such a bold statement.  That was what happened here. We felt this strengthened her case and we were able to provide enough support for our arguments that it helped push the employer to come to the table to negotiate a substantial resolution for my client.

We like to believe that discrimination laws protect employees from unlawful, or wrongful as it is typically called, terminations.  Unfortunately, however, we continue to see disability discrimination claims come into our office on a regular basis. We provide a legal analysis to our clients, we explain the law to them, explain how the law applies to their specific situation, and we help them to strategize and hopefully come to a positive outcome as they move forward.  If you feel you have been discriminated against at your job due to a disability, it is always helpful to speak with an attorney to know your rights. After all, as we always say, the only person who truly has rights is the person who knows what those legal rights are.