Wrongful termination based on an employee's health is prohibited in many cases by state and federal laws. Both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) have provisions protecting qualified employees from dismissal based on certain medical conditions. Wrongful termination based on illness may also occur if an employer breaches a contract that specifies terms of employment in the case of disability.

Health-based wrongful termination and the law

The ADA prohibits wrongful termination based on disability. The law defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life functions, such as hearing, seeing, walking, speaking, breathing, thinking, caring for oneself, or performing manual tasks. Since the ADA includes no list of covered illnesses or diseases, an employee's medical condition must be judged strictly according to the above criteria. All employers with 15 or more employees must uphold ADA.

The FMLA permits 12 weeks of unpaid leave for a serious health condition that prevents an employee from performing his or her job. An employee can't be terminated for using this leave. The law defines a serious health condition as an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition that involves a period of incapacity (absence of more than three workdays) due to:

  • Inpatient care in a hospital or other medical-care facility

  • A chronic health condition (e.g., asthma or epilepsy)

  • A long-term condition for which treatment may not be effective (e.g., Alzheimer's disease or a stroke)

  • Multiple treatments by a health-care provider and recovery from those treatments (e.g., chemotherapy or dialysis)

Government offices, public and private schools, and private employers with 50 or more employees for at least 20 weeks of a year must uphold FMLA.

States may offer additional safeguards for employees suffering from an illness.

Filing a health-based wrongful termination complaint

You may file an ADA discrimination charge with your local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) office. Charges should be filed within 180 days, or 300 days if your state also has applicable anti-discrimination laws.

FMLA discrimination charges should be filed with the Secretary of Labor, Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor's Employment Standards Administration. You have two years from your dismissal to file.

You don't need a lawyer to file a discrimination charge. You may seek legal counsel if your case is more complex or if you wish to file a private lawsuit. A private lawsuit may also provide relief if your termination was a breach of an employment contract (for example, contrary to the disability terms outlined in an employee handbook).

Additional resources:

U.S. Department of Labor E-Laws: FMLA Advisor, Serious Health Condition

Job Accommodation Network: How to Determine Whether a Person Has a Disability Under ADA

Workplace Fairness: Disability Leave

Related Legal Guides:

Wrongful Termination Law

Wrongful Termination Checklist

Wrongful Termination: Age