Lawsuit by New Jersey Grocery Store Employee Alleged Disability Discrimination, Failure to Accommodate

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of disability. It also requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for employees with disabilities, in order to enable them to perform their job duties. A New Jersey disability discrimination lawsuit originally filed in the Superior Court of Bergen County alleged failure to accommodate against a grocery store. The employee was bitten on the arm by a venomous spider while at work, resulting in hospitalization. He alleged in the lawsuit that the employer failed to accommodate the “anxiety and panic attacks” that arose because of the experience, and that he was fired in violation of the NJLAD. The parties settled the suit shortly after its removal to federal court.

The term “disability,” as defined by the NJLAD, includes “any mental [or] psychological…disability…which prevents the normal exercise of any bodily or mental functions.” N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-5(q). Anxiety and panic disorders can be extremely debilitating for some individuals.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a guidance document in 1997 that addressed whether anxiety may qualify as a disability under federal law. Its conclusions do not control New Jersey state courts applying the NJLAD, but they may still offer some useful guidance. The EEOC offered an example of an employee whose anxiety disorder affected their “ability to concentrate.” Legal antidiscrimination protections would be available, the EEOC concluded, if the impact of the anxiety disorder is “long-term or potentially long-term, as opposed to temporary.”

State law in New Jersey requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, unless an employer can show that this “would impose an undue hardship on the operation of its business.” N.J.A.C. § 13:13-2.5(b). Examples provided by state regulations include making physical modifications to workspaces and other facilities, adjusting or modifying work schedules, and “job reassignment.” Id. at § 13:13-2.5(b)(1)(iv). Factors that may contribute to a finding that an accommodation would impose an “undue hardship” may include the cost of making changes to facilities or operations, and the possible interference of a requested accommodation with “an essential requirement of a job.” Id. at § 13:13-2.5(b)(3)(iv).

The plaintiff in the lawsuit mentioned above worked in the produce department of a store location in Paramus. He stated in his complaint that, while unloading a produce crate in the store, a black widow spider inside the crate bit him on the arm. The bite reportedly “caused temporary paralysis” in his arm, and required hospitalization and physical therapy.

Upon his return to work a month later, the plaintiff alleged that he experienced “debilitating anxiety” about returning to work in the produce department. He states that he requested a transfer to an available position in a different department, but that no one responded to his requests. Instead, the defendant allegedly terminated him for “job abandonment.”

The plaintiff filed suit in state court in July 2019, alleging failure to accommodate and disability discrimination under the NJLAD. The defendant removed the case to federal court in August, citing diversity jurisdiction. In early October, the parties announced that they had reached a settlement.

If you need to speak to a disability discrimination lawyer about a dispute with an employer in New Jersey or New York, the attorneys at Resnick Law Group are available to answer your questions and discuss your options. Please contact us online, at 973-781-1204, or at 646-867-7997 today to schedule a confidential consultation.

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