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Age, Disability Discrimination Lawsuit May Proceed to Trial, New Jersey Court Rules

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) bars employers from discriminating against their employees on the basis of factors like age, race, sex, and disability. This includes terminating an employee, refusing to hire a job applicant, demoting or declining to promote an employee, and many other decisions involving employment benefits and conditions. The New Jersey Appellate Division recently ruled (the “Opinion”) that a woman’s claims for age and disability discrimination can move forward, finding that she had raised sufficient questions of fact about the defendant’s claimed reasons for terminating her employment.

The NJLAD prohibits discrimination on the basis of numerous factors, including age and disability. In the Opinion, the court reviewed the process for a claim under the NJLAD. A plaintiff must establish four elements: (1) they are part of a protected class and (2) are qualified for the position they held; and (3) the employer took an adverse employment action and (4) replaced the plaintiff with someone who is not part of the protected class. The burden of proof then shifts to the defendant to “articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason” for the adverse action. Finally, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant’s alleged reason was pretextual, meaning that it was merely cover for a discriminatory purpose.

Reportedly, the defendant terminated the plaintiff shortly after she underwent gallbladder surgery. She was fifty years old at the time and had recently received “a ‘strong performance’ evaluation” from the defendant. She alleged that the defendant replaced her with “a person nearly half her age.” The reason given by the defendant for the termination involved a claim that she “attempted to defraud [the defendant] by failing to take steps to remove her ex-husband from the company’s health insurance plan.”

The plaintiff sued for age and disability discrimination under the NJLAD, as well as aiding and abetting, and punitive damages. She also asserted causes of action for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendant on all claims. The plaintiff only appealed on the NJLAD claims, aiding and abetting, and punitive damages.

The Appellate Division concluded that a genuine issue of fact existed as to whether the defendant’s reason for termination was pretextual. It noted that the plaintiff had produced evidence that she had notified the defendant of her divorce shortly after it was finalized. On the question of whether her surgery met the definition of “disability” in the NJLAD, the court found that the statute defines the term broadly. It is not, the court held, limited to “severe or immutable disabilities.” 

The court reversed summary judgment on the discrimination claims. Since those claims should have been allowed to proceed, it also reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the aiding and abetting and punitive damages claims.

If you need assistance in a dispute with your employer in New Jersey or New York, the employment lawyers at the Resnick Law Group are available to help you understand your legal rights and options. Please contact us today at 973-781-1204, at 646-867-7997, or through our website to schedule a confidential consultation to see how our team can help you.

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