Making a Prima Facie Case of Discrimination Under the ADA

Find out what you’ll have to prove in a disability discrimination case.

To bring a disability discrimination lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act, an employee must be able to make a “prima facie” case. Prima facie means “on its face” or “at first glance” in Latin, and it refers to the evidence the employee or applicant must present on order to move the case forward. In employment discrimination cases, the employee or applicant must present enough evidence to allow the judge or jury to infer that discrimination occurred. If the employee does so, the employer must then present some evidence that it took the challenged job action for other reasons. Ultimately, however, the burden of proof in discrimination cases lies with the employee, who ultimately must prove that discrimination took place.

Prima Facie Case of Disability Discrimination

Different courts use different standards to determine whether an employee has made a prima facie case of disability discrimination; an experienced employment lawyer will know the standard local courts use. Generally speaking, an employee must present evidence of three facts to bring a prima facie case:

  • The employee had a disability, had a history of disability, or was perceived by the employer as having a disability. The ADA defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. For more information on what qualifies as a disability under the ADA, see What Is a Disability Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?
  • The employee was qualified for the position and able to perform its essential functions, with or without a reasonable accommodation. Employers are not required to hire or retain employees who can’t do the job; only qualified employees are protected from discrimination under the ADA. To learn about qualifications and essential functions, see Essential Job Functions and the ADA.
  • The circumstances suggest that the employee was subjected to a negative job action based on disability.

This final part of the prima facie case can be demonstrated in different ways. If a manager said the employee was being fired because of his or her disability, that would certainly suffice. Often, however, this type of direct evidence isn’t available. In this more common situation, an employee might show that he was fired, despite doing a good job, and an employee without a disability was promoted to his position. Or, an employee might show that a disproportionate number of employees with disabilities were selected for layoffs, and that the company posted their jobs shortly afterward.

Prima Facie Case of Failure to Provide a Reasonable Accommodation

The ADA doesn’t just prohibit employers from discriminating against employees with disabilities; it also requires them to make reasonable accommodations to allow employees with disabilities to do their job. (To learn more about reasonable accommodation, see Reasonable Accommodations and the Americans with Disabilities Act.) An employer who fails to provide a reasonable accommodation has violated the law, and can be sued. Again, courts use somewhat different standards, but the basics of a prima facie case of failure to accommodate are:

  • The employee has a disability as defined by the ADA.
  • The employee informed the employer of his or her condition and requested an accommodation.
  • There was an accommodation available that would have been effective and would not have posed an undue hardship to the employer.
  • The employer failed to provide an accommodation.

Employers aren’t required to provide the precise accommodation an employee requests, but they must engage in an interactive process with the employee to come up with an accommodation that will work. Also, an employer isn’t required to accommodate an employee by lowering performance or productivity standards, changing or eliminating essential job functions, or providing personal use items (such as a wheelchair or hearing aid).

Getting Legal Help

If you believe you have been discriminated against because of your disability, or you have been denied a reasonable accommodation, you should speak to an employment lawyer right away. A lawyer can evaluate the facts of your case and explain how strong your claims are. A lawyer can also help you negotiate with your employer and, if necessary, file a charge of discrimination and a lawsuit to protect your rights.

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