The Resnick Law Group recently represented a teacher in a disability discrimination case at the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, and obtained a reversal of a lower court order dismissing the case. The teacher alleges that her employer’s failure to provide a reasonable accommodation for her disability caused her to suffer injury when she collapsed at work. One of the questions before the court involved whether she could assert a cause of action for disability discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) without evidence of an “adverse employment action.” The court held that she could.
The NJLAD prohibits discrimination on the basis of actual, perceived, or past disabilities. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12(a), N.J.A.C. § 13:13-1.3. This includes a requirement that employers provide “reasonable accommodations” to employees with disabilities, which would allow them to perform the functions of their jobs. The plaintiff taught science at a middle school in the defendant’s school district. She had Type 1 diabetes, which means that she must eat on a rather strict schedule to prevent her blood sugar from getting too low. The defendant denied requests to modify her class schedule so she could always have an early lunch period. She alleges that, as a result, she suffered a hypoglycemic episode in front of her students. She fell and hit her face and head on a table and the floor. After a successful claim for workers’ compensation, she filed suit under the NJLAD.
The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s NJLAD failure to accommodate claim, finding that she had failed to establish an adverse employment action. The Appellate Division identified three questions it had to address:
1. Does a plaintiff alleging failure to accommodate a disability have to establish an adverse employment action in order to avoid summary judgment dismissal?
2. If not, is a bodily injury claim brought under the NJLAD barred by the Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA)?
3. If the case were to proceed, should any recovery be offset by workers’ compensation payments?
The court answered “no” to question #1, finding that the defendant’s denial of an accommodation placed her in an “unusual situation” in which she was “forced..to soldier on without a reasonable accommodation.” It cited a 2010 decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court, which specifically declined to hold that an adverse employment action is a necessary element of a failure to accommodate claim. The Appellate Division did not find that the denial of an accommodate constituted an adverse employment action in itself. It ruled that her NJLAD claim could proceed, though, without evidence of a specific adverse action.
On question #2, the court found that the plaintiff’s claims are not barred by the WCA’s exclusive-remedy provisions. It noted that the purpose of those provisions was to provide compensation for injuries that “constitute a simple fact of industrial life.” The plaintiff’s injuries, the court found, resulted from an intentional decision made with “substantial certain[ty]” that she could suffer injury as a result. “This is not the ‘simple fact of industrial life’ envisioned by the” WCA, the court held. The court also answered “no” to question #3.
The Resnick Law Group’s team of experienced and knowledgeable employment attorneys are available to assist you in your dispute with an employer in New Jersey or New York. To schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can help you, please contact us today online, at 973-781-1204, or at 646-867-7997.