Is it legal to fire someone because they had spine surgery and are deemed a liability to further injury?

UPDATED: Sep 30, 2022

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Is it legal to fire someone because they had spine surgery and are deemed a liability to further injury?

I had spine fusion surgery about 2 years ago. This is my first job at an office after my recovery. I had a very physical job prior. I was upfront that the reason I left was because I could no longer withstand physical work all day and was changing to a career that involved a desk job as an administrative assistant. At my interview my employer asked me if I could file, I said yes. I manage my own personal files at home. My first week of work I was given a deadline to clean up his file cabinets and file everything over the last 8 months that was just sitting in a pile I wanted to work again so badly that I attempted to do it. I told him I was having severe pain but that didn’t change the deadline. I thought perhaps the pain would eventually go away but one day I went into the file cabinet for one heavy file, high up and felt a horrible pain in my neck. Believe it or not my employer was also dating my sister so he was well aware of my health past and present. They visited a spine surgeon friend of his and I think this person gave him the impression that since I had a spinal fusion and was irritated by filing that I was a liability for workman’s comp or to sue him should I suddenly hurt myself and possibly become paralyzed I asked my doctor and he said that presumption isn’t even medically sound. I believe it was illegal to terminate my employment on the idea that I’m more prone to injuring my self than others because of my spine surgery. This man tells me that HR of this big company recommended he terminate me for this reason but not to tell me this was why. When I asked him if I could withdraw cleaning his file cabinets and only retrieve files as I need them he said it wasn’t a deal breaker, than weeks later he said it was out of the blue. After telling me my work otherwise was fantastic. I believe this man also has emotional and mental problems as well. One day he told me to go to lunch and then 10 minutes later came into the lunchroom and told me he didn’t know I was eating lunch There are other opportunities to work for subsidiaries of this company that I think I have no chance at now because of this scenario. I really don’t want to sue and cause backlash for myself. If I speak poorly of him, I look bad, if i say it is because I can’t file, I look odd. How do I proceed in finding employment after this? How can I speak to why I was let go?

Asked on April 3, 2017 under Employment Labor Law, Pennsylvania


SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 5 years ago | Contributor

You told him you could file at your interveiw; filing was evidently part of the job. When an employee cannot do a core part of his or her job, they may be terminated, even if the reason is a medical condition or procedure: the law does not make employers keep employees who simply can't do what they were (at least in part) hired to do. The employer also does not have to find a different job or position for the employee. Based on what you write, your termination was legal. As to what do say in the future: either be honest (but put as good a spin on it as possible) or, if the future employer doesn't ask, simply leave it alone--not volunteering information is not lying. Remember that if you do lie in applying for a job and you are found out, not only can you be fired "for cause" (no unemployment), but they can sue you theoretically (i.e. they could do this, but it is not likely) for any costs incurred in recruiting you.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The Answer(s) provided above are for general information only. The attorney providing the answer was not serving as the attorney for the person submitting the question or in any attorney-client relationship with such person. Laws may vary from state to state, and sometimes change. Tiny variations in the facts, or a fact not set forth in a question, often can change a legal outcome or an attorney's conclusion. Although has verified the attorney was admitted to practice law in at least one jurisdiction, he or she may not be authorized to practice law in the jurisdiction referred to in the question, nor is he or she necessarily experienced in the area of the law involved. Unlike the information in the Answer(s) above, upon which you should NOT rely, for personal advice you can rely upon we suggest you retain an attorney to represent you.

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