Chicago Religious & Disability Discrimination Lawyer

In race and sex discrimination cases, the issue is typically that a person of one race or gender is treated differently than a person of another. Proving that case is a matter of proving that the reason for the difference is someone’s race or gender. The same could hold true for religion and disabilities. A company that refuses to hire someone of a particular religion or a disabled person who is otherwise capable of doing the job, violates the law in the same manner as it would if it were to refuse to hire a woman or an African-American. But laws forbidding discrimination on the basis of religion or disability go a step further. They require companies to make “reasonable accommodations” for religious practices and disabilities.

Reasonable Accommodations

It is not enough for a company to provide any accommodation, the accommodation must be reasonable. In this sense, “reasonable” means that the accommodation is directed toward and sufficient to accommodate the employee. Thus, in the religious context, where a Muslim or Jew working in a grocery store complains of having to handle pork, giving him rubber gloves is not a reasonable accommodation if it does not address a religious view that pork is not food. Similarly, giving a blind man a brighter computer screen is inadequate.

At the same time, an employer is not required to submit itself to an undue hardship to make the accommodation. For example, it may be a reasonable accommodation for a paper mill to put $100,000 air filter in one of its facilities to accommodate a cleaning person who has asthma, but because the accommodation would cause an undue hardship on the employer, that accommodation need not be made.

What remains is the question of whether a reasonable accommodation which does not cause an undue hardship on the employer can be made. This requires the employee and the employer to work together to find an accommodation. If the employee should fail to participate in that process, the employer cannot be held liable for failing to find an accommodation. If the employer should fail to participate in the process, it can be held liable it would have been able to identify a reasonable accommodation.

Religious Discrimination

Failure to accommodate a religious practice is a violation of Title VII. In order to claim the protections of Title VII, an employee must meet several criteria. First, the employee’s religious belief must be a part of a bona fide religion. An employee is going to have significant difficulty when he creates his own religion and then says that it prohibits coming to work on Wednesdays. Second, the employee must make it known to the employer that there is a conflict between job requirements and the employee’s religious practices. Finally, the employee must make an effort to work with the employer to find a reasonable accommodation which does not cause the employer an undue hardship.

Disability Discrimination

Failure to accommodate a disability is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But disability claims are more complex. The first question is whether the employee has a disability. A person’s race or gender is typically a clear certainty. Even with religious discrimination claims, a person need only show that he practices a particular religion. But what is a disability? An injury can be anything from a stubbed toe (which will most certainly not rise to the level of a disability) to the loss of both legs (which would rise to the level of a disability.) Thus, in order for a particular disability to be considered a disability under the law, it must meet the legal definition. A disability for the purposes of the ADA is a condition which substantially impairs a major life activity.

Typically, once the employee has identified the disability in his own mind, an attorney must consider what major life activity it impacts. Major life activities include things like walking, seeing, or breathing. The next consideration is whether the disability substantially impairs that activity. Because the concern here is whether a person is in the class of “disabled” this analysis is done independent of the employee’s work. Thus, if an employer fires a person because he has a serious skin condition, even if the employee could do the job without any accommodation at all, if the skin condition does not meet the definition of a disability, the employee may have no case. The reason is that the law does not cover him.

Perception of a Disability

There is one exception to the requirement that someone actually be disabled under the law which is where the employer acts with the belief or “perception” that the employee is disabled under the law. But this does not mean that simply calling an employee disabled suffices. The employer must actually perceive that the employee has a condition which substantially impairs a major life activity. Perception cases can be very difficult.

Making a Request for Accommodation of a Disability

In order to claim the protections of the ADA, the employee must first approach the employer and explain how the disability impairs his work and then engage in the same interactive process as required to obtain an accommodation for a religious practice. The employee does not have to explain how his disability substantially impairs a major life activity. However, because the employer will not be liable for failing to make the accommodation if the employee does not meet the definition of disabled, the employer’s view of whether to make the accommodation may hinge on its view of whether the employee is disabled. Thus, in some cases it may make sense to explain the impairment to the employer.

Religious accommodation and disability claims can be very tricky. If you are in need of an accommodation, explain your situation to your employer right away and document that explanation by sending a follow up letter. If you are unable to reach an accommodation with your employer, the Chicago religious and disability lawyers at Maduff & Maduff, LLC may be able to help.

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