Not only can employers be liable for firing someone on the basis that an employee has a physical or mental impairment, they may be liable if they “regard” the employee as having a disability. In Wilson v. Phoenix Specialty Manufacturing Co., the U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed a decision that awarded an employee with Parkinson’s disease over $170,000 plus punitive damages.
The bottom line is, even if an employee is not necessarily disabled, the law will treat the employee as disabled if an employer treats him as such. In Wilson, Phoenix was afraid that Wilson would make mistakes, so it instructed him not to do certain tasks. For example, out of concern for his eyesight, Phoenix instructed Wilson not to count washers. But, counting washers was a part of Wilson’s job description as shipping supervisor of the manufacturing company. Phoenix directed Wilson to refrain from inputting information in a computer. Phoenix also refused to train Wilson on a new computer system, figuring he would not be able to enter information correctly. Phoenix claimed that Wilson’s handwriting was illegible, though the court later found that it was legible.
The lesson here is that, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employees don’t necessarily have to have a disability. The disability may exist only in the eye of the beholder.