Failure to Accommodate, Part 1: New Jersey Teacher Alleges Disability Discrimination Against School Board

The Resnick Law Group recently won a notable victory for New Jersey employees related to a failure to accommodate an employee’s disability. This post discusses the legal background of the case, while a subsequent post will cover the court’s opinion. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, among many other factors. This includes terminating or refusing to hire a person because they have a disability, Under rules found in the New Jersey Administrative Code, disability discrimination also includes refusing to provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability. One of our attorneys recently argued a case before the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, on behalf of an employee who was denied an accommodation for a chronic illness. After the defendant allegedly denied the employee’s request for an accommodation, she collapsed at work and suffered injuries. The appeal involved questions of whether a failure to accommodate claim under the NJLAD could proceed without evidence of an “adverse employment action,” and whether state workers’ compensation law barred her bodily injury claims. In early June 2019, the Appellate Division ruled that the employee’s lawsuit could move forward.

The term “disability” has a very broad definition under the NJLAD. In additional to various injuries and congenital conditions, it includes “physical…infirmity,…which is caused by…illness.” N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-5(q). State regulations adopt this definition, but also add the perception or belief that a person has a disability, regardless of whether they actually do, and a history of “ha[ving] been a person with a disability at any time.” N.J.A.C. § 13:13-1.3.

The statute requires employers to “make a reasonable accommodation to the limitations of an employee…who is a person with a disability.” Id. at § 13:13-2.5(b). The employee in the Appellate Division case referenced above has Type 1 diabetes and needs accommodations in the daily work schedule to manage their blood sugar. State regulations include “modified work schedules” among the accommodations employers must consider for employees with disabilities. Id. An employer can avoid the obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation only if they “can demonstrate that [it] would impose an undue hardship on the operation of its business.” Id.

The other statute at issue in the case was the Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA), which, as the name suggests, provides compensation to workers who are injured on the job. The plaintiff had received compensation under the WCA. The statute includes an “exclusive remedy” provision, which states that a worker who accepts compensation under the WCA waives the right to any other claim for damages. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:15-8.

The plaintiff worked as a middle school science teacher. Because of her Type I diabetes, she needed to eat at regular times in order to maintain her blood sugar. She requested a schedule that allowed her to eat lunch as close to noon as possible. This request was not granted during all quarters of the school year. The plaintiff experienced a hypoglycemic event during class, which caused her to collapse and strike her head on a table, and then the floor. She filed a workers’ compensation claim and collected benefits. She then filed a complaint alleging disability discrimination and failure to accommodate under the NJLAD.

The Resnick Law Group’s knowledgeable and experienced employment attorneys represent workers in New Jersey and New York, advocating for their rights in claims for unlawful employment practices like disability discrimination. To schedule a confidential consultation with a member of our team, please contact us today online, at 973-781-1204, or at 646-867-7997.

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