New Jersey Public School District Pays to Settle Disability Discrimination and Retaliation Claims

wheelchair.jpgThe New Jersey Division on Civil Rights (“DCR”) recently announced that a Bergen County school district has agreed to pay $90,000 to settle claims that it failed to reasonably accommodate a former employee’s disability and then retaliated against her for her complaint of disability discrimination.

Maria Osnowitz was a teacher’s aide for the West New York Board of Education. She suffers from knee injuries that impair her mobility. For the most part, she utilizes a motorized wheelchair or scooter to get around. When walking is necessary, she utilizes two canes.

In her first DCR Complaint, Ms. Osnowitz alleged that West New York Board of Education failed to reasonably accommodate her disability. Specifically, she alleged that, because of her disability, she requested to park her car in a covered parking area close to the entrance of the school where she worked, but that the school principal refused to allow her to do so. In addition, she alleged that the school repeatedly held meetings — and required her attendance — at locations that were not wheelchair-accessible. She further alleged that she requested that the meeting locations be changed, but that the school refused to do so.

Both federal and New Jersey laws against disability discrimination require that employers provide reasonable accommodations in the workplace to allow disabled employees to perform the essential functions of their jobs. (The term “disability” is loosely defined under the law and incorporates a host of medical issues, not just severe or obvious disabilities.) While employers might not be required to provide the precise accommodation that an employee requests, employers still must participate in a good faith, interactive process aimed at discussing possible accommodations and determining an effective one. Generally speaking, an employer cannot simply refuse to provide a reasonable accommodation (particularly when the accommodation does not pose an undue burden), terminate an employee because of his or her disability, or terminate or otherwise engage in retaliation against an employee for asserting the need for a reasonable accommodation or for complaining about disability discrimination.

Indeed, Ms. Osnowitz subsequently filed a second DCR Complaint, alleging unlawful retaliation when the school declined to renew her contract for the following school year. The basis of her second Complaint was that the school allegedly terminated her employment because she had complained of unlawful disability discrimination.

Both federal and New Jersey anti-discrimination laws prohibit an employer from taking adverse action against an employee for engaging in “protected activity.” Generally speaking, an employee engages in “protected activity” when her or she complains about discrimination in the workplace. The Supreme Court of the United States has held that, to qualify as retaliation, the adverse action requirement “is not limited to discriminatory actions that affect the terms and conditions of employment.” Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 64 (2006). Indeed the requirement is merely that “a plaintiff must show that a reasonable employee would have found the challenged [adverse] action … might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” Id. at 68 (internal quotations and citation omitted). Thus, an employee need not show that he or she was terminated or demoted in order to prevail in a retaliation case. Even actions such as negative evaluations, performance warnings, and internal transfers may be deemed retaliatory under certain circumstances.

In the case of Ms. Osnowitz, however, the alleged adverse action was clearly an alteration of the terms and conditions of her employment, because the West New York Board of Education declined to renew her contract, effectively terminating her employment.

Ultimately, the West New York Board of Education settled the case raised by Ms. Osnowitz, without admitting any wrongdoing. Among other provisions, the terms of the settlement required the West New York Board of Education to pay $83,000 to Ms. Osnowitz and $7,000 to the State of New Jersey.

The Resnick Law Group, P.C. has been advocating the rights of employees, and handling employment law matters on behalf of employees, for more than 30 years in and around New Jersey and New York City. If you feel your employer has violated your rights, and you wish to speak with a New Jersey employment law attorney, contact the Resnick Law Group, P.C. at 973-781-1204 or 646-867-7997. We are located in Roseland, N.J. and Midtown Manhattan on Broadway.

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