State and federal laws protect workers from termination based on a protected category like race or sex, known as discriminatory termination; or because of participation in protected activities like reporting legal violations, known as retaliatory discharge. A claimant must make a prima facie case of a discriminatory or retaliatory purpose in order to get past a summary judgment motion. A federal court in New Jersey recently ruled in a plaintiff’s favor on claims of discriminatory discharge under state law and retaliatory discharge under federal and New Jersey wrongful termination laws. Ferren v. Foulke Mgt. Corp., No. 1:15-cv-03721, opinion (D.N.J., Feb. 16, 2017).
The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of multiple categories, including disability. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12(a). Unlawful discrimination includes discharging an employee solely or primarily because of a disability. It also prohibits retaliating against an employee because of a protected activity. The federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guarantees that qualifying employees of covered employers may take unpaid leave for certain purposes, and it prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for taking authorized leave or reporting violations of the statute. 29 U.S.C. § 2615.
The plaintiff in Ferren began working for the defendant in 2001 as a lot attendant at a car dealership. His job duties included lot maintenance and customer service. He took medical leave in October 2014 for a shoulder injury, according to the court, after informing his supervisor that he would be having surgery and was invoking his rights under the FMLA. The plaintiff was scheduled to return to work in January 2015. He reportedly provided a doctor’s note to the supervisor in December 2014, which stated that the plaintiff should not lift more than five pounds and should refrain from certain other activities. The supervisor allegedly told the plaintiff to “go home and get better.” Ferren, op. at 3. On the plaintiff’s scheduled return date, he was laid off.
The defendant had a practice of laying off employees in January “if business was slow.” Id. The plaintiff alleged, however, that “he had never been laid off due to seasonal business needs.” Id. at 4. He alleged that his firing was both discriminatory and retaliatory. He filed suit for discriminatory discharge based on both actual and perceived disability under the NJLAD, and for retaliatory discharge under the NJLAD and the FMLA. The defendant moved for summary judgment.
The court allowed all four wrongful termination claims brought by the plaintiff to proceed. On the discriminatory discharge claims, the court found that the plaintiff had met the four-part test by showing that: (1) he had a disability, (2) he could still perform his job, (3) an adverse employment action occurred, and (4) the employer “sought someone else to perform the same work.” Id. at 13, citing Tourtellotte v. Eli Lilly & Co., 636 Fed. App’x 831, 848 (3d Cir. 2016); McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973).
On the retaliatory discharge claims, the court applied two very similar three-part tests in finding that the plaintiff had met his initial burden: (1) he engaged in a protected activity, and (2) he faced retaliation that (3) was caused by the protected activity. Craig v. Suburban Cablevision, Inc., 140 N.J. 623, 629-30 (1995); Budhun v. Reading Hosp. & Med. Ctr., 765 F.3d 245, 256 (3d Cir. 2014).
To speak with a disability discrimination attorney about a dispute or other matter in New Jersey or New York, contact the Resnick Law Group today online, at 973-781-1204, or at 646-867-7997.
More Blog Posts:
Whistleblower Employees Receive Share of Settlement in New Jersey False Claims Lawsuit, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, August 21, 2017
Third Circuit Court of Appeals Rules in Employee’s Favor in FMLA Discrimination Claim, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, June 8, 2017
New Jersey Jury Awards $8.45 Million in Wrongful Termination Case, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, December 2, 2016