Have you been discriminated against on the job because of your disability? Perhaps you were denied a reasonable accommodation you needed to do your job and then fired for poor performance. Maybe your coworkers teased and harassed you due to your disability. Or, maybe your manager denied you a promotion on the mistaken assumption that you would be unable to handle the job because of your disability.
If you believe you have been subjected to disability discrimination, you should talk to an experienced employment lawyer right away. A lawyer can help you figure out whether you have a strong claim and, if so, how best to assert your rights. (To learn more about other types of discrimination, see our FAQ on employment discrimination.)
How a Lawyer Can Help
It’s important to meet with an employment lawyer when you first realize you are facing workplace disability discrimination. Most employees would prefer to have a job than a claim for wrongful termination. A lawyer can help you negotiate with your employer to get the accommodations you need, improve your treatment at work, and protect your job. A lawyer can even act behind the scenes, advising you on how to discuss the situation with your employer and assert your rights, without stepping forward to formally represent you.
If your efforts to keep your job fail, a lawyer can help you seek compensation for your employer’s illegal actions. Together, you and your lawyer will assess the strengths and weaknesses of your claims and come up with the best strategy for moving forward. For example, a lawyer can try to negotiate a generous severance package that will compensate you for the discrimination.
If efforts to negotiate with your employer aren’t successful, a lawyer can file a charge of discrimination at the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or a similar state agency. You must file a charge before you can file a lawsuit against your employer. Your lawyer can represent you in this process, making a persuasive case on your behalf and helping you evaluate settlement offers. If you aren’t satisfied with the agency process, a lawyer can file a lawsuit in court for disability discrimination.
Finding a Lawyer
The best way to find a lawyer, like any other service provider, is through a referral from someone you trust. If you have a colleague, friend, or family member who was happy with their employment lawyer, that’s a great place to start. Remember, lawyers specialize in certain areas: Your cousin’s divorce lawyer or your friend’s estate planning lawyer won’t be able to help you with your disability discrimination case.
If you don’t have any personal legal connections, local referral services can be a good bet. Keep in mind that these services vary greatly in whether and how much they investigate the lawyers who appear on their lists. You’ll need to decide for yourself, based on the lawyer’s experience, demeanor, and references, whether he or she is right for your case. Here are some places to look:
- The EEOC and many state and local fair employment practices agencies often have lists of local discrimination lawyers.
- Your local legal aid office may handle employment claims. Typically, these organizations serve low-income clients only, but if you exceed the income limit, the office may refer you to local employment attorneys.
- Local and state bar associations often have referral lists of lawyers by practice area.
- Private referral services, such as the Lawyers.com directory, provide listings for local lawyers by practice area.
Choosing the Right Lawyer
Once you have a few names of local employment attorneys, call each one to set up an interview. In your initial phone conversation, the attorney will ask you some basic questions about your case and tell you what to bring to the interview. Make sure to find out what the attorney will charge for this initial consultation; some provide a free consultation to decide whether the representation will work out, while others charge an hourly or flat fee.
At your interview, explain what happened and why you think it was discriminatory. It can help to create a brief outline or timeline of important events, so you don’t forget anything. Bring any documents that support your claim, such as an employment contract, termination letter, performance reviews, emails about accommodations, and so on. Also bring the names and contact information of any witnesses to what happened.
During the meeting, the attorney will ask you questions and evaluate your claims. The attorney should go over the strengths and weaknesses of your case, what you can expect if you decide to work together, and how the attorney would handle your dispute. The attorney should also explain how attorneys’ fees work, including how much you will be expected to pay up front, what costs you will be responsible for, and so on.
Once you’ve met with each attorney, you’ll need to decide whom you want to work with. Because you’ll spend a lot of time with your attorney, you should choose someone you can get along with and understand. Also consider the attorney’s experience, professionalism, and demeanor:
- Did the attorney answer all of your questions?
- Did you understand and agree with the plan for moving forward?
- Was the attorney on time, prepared to meet with you, and presentable?
- Did the attorney give you references—and did those people explain clearly why they were satisfied with the attorney’s services?
- Do you understand the attorney’s fee agreement?
Questions for Your Attorney
- My employer seems genuine in its offer to find an accommodation for my disability. Do I still need a lawyer?
- Should I hire a lawyer before I file an EEOC charge or after?
- If my case settles before trial, does the other side have to pay my attorneys’ fees?