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Court looks at issue of causation in disability discrimination case

In any employment discrimination case, it is critical for an employee who has been subjected to adverse employment action to work carefully with an experienced attorney to fully establish each element of the discrimination claim, whether the claim falls under state or federal law.

While the specific elements depend on the laws under which the litigation is pursued, these elements include both membership in a protected class and adverse employment action. In cases involving discriminatory intent, a plaintiff must also prove a causal link between membership in the protected class and the adverse employment action. Proving these basic elements can be challenging depending on the circumstances of the case, particularly the element of causation or intent, partly because employers are usually carefully to hide illegal discrimination and are quick to cite legitimate reasons for taking adverse employment.  

Under Wisconsin’s Fair Employment Act, causation can be proven in a couple different ways: by proving that the employer’s treatment of the employee was based on discriminatory animus; or that it was based on dissatisfaction with employee behavior or performance which is directly attributable to the employee’s membership in the protected class.

Looking at the latter basis, the issue would be whether the unsatisfactory conduct which resulted in termination was caused by the employee’s disability. A recent Wisconsin disability discrimination case dealt with this issue, and highlighted some of the issues that can come up. One of the issues presented in the cases was whether there was enough evidence to prove the company knew of the employee’s disability and that it terminated the employee on the basis of conduct related to the disability. This primary issue here is the employer’s knowledge and intent.

Another issue that can come up in these cases is whether the causal connection between the employee’s conduct, for which an employee is terminated, and the employee’s disability has been sufficiently established. On both points, the court decided in favor of the employee in this case, but these are issues that could be decided differently under a different set of facts and circumstances.

Proving discrimination is, as we’ve noted, not necessarily an easy matter. Anybody who suspects they have been subjected to discrimination on the job, for disability or on any other discriminatory basis, should always work with an experienced attorney to protect their rights and to build the strongest possible case.

Source: Wis. Stat. Section 111.31 et seq., Wisconsin Fair Employment Act

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