Disability discrimination is unlawful under both federal and state laws. Employers may not refuse to hire a job applicant because of a disability, nor may they fire, demote, refuse to promote, or deny various other employment features to an employee. Federal and state laws apply these protections both to individuals with qualifying disabilities and individuals who are perceived as having a disability. A plaintiff asserting a claim for damages under New Jersey employment law has the burden of proving that their employer based their discriminatory act or acts on a qualifying disability. In a case involving perceived disability, the plaintiff must also prove that the employer had this perception. The New Jersey Appellate Division recently allowed a disability discrimination case to proceed. It ruled that the plaintiff was entitled to gather evidence regarding their employer’s perceptions and intent.
The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) provides a broad definition of “disability” that includes a wide range of physical and psychological conditions. New Jersey courts have long held that the NJLAD’s provisions on disability discrimination apply to perceived disabilities just as much as actual ones. In other words, an employer violates the NJLAD when it believes an employee has a disability and discriminates against them because of that perceived disability.
The plaintiff in the lawsuit described above alleged that the defendants unlawfully discriminated against her because of a perception that she was an alcoholic. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that alcoholism may qualify as a disability under the NJLAD.
The plaintiff worked as a municipal judge from 2002 until 2017, when she received notification from the mayor that she would not be reappointed to the position. Shortly prior to this, she alleges that another city official asked her whether she had been drinking before coming to work. This person then allegedly sent a memo to other city officials expressing the same concerns. The plaintiff denies the allegations.
After her dismissal, the plaintiff filed suit against the city and multiple officials. She alleged disability discrimination under the NJLAD and multiple other claims. She tried to depose the defendants. Defense counsel kept rescheduling the deposition dates, according to the Appellate Division. The plaintiff sat for a deposition, but then the defendants filed motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The trial court granted these motions before the end of the discovery period.
The plaintiff appealed to the Appellate Division, which noted in its ruling that motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim usually come shortly after a lawsuit begins. In this case, however, the defendants filed them partway through the discovery process. This resulted in the trial court considering evidence beyond what was contained in the pleadings. State law holds that a motion to dismiss becomes a motion for summary judgment in this situation. When a defendant’s state of mind or credibility is a key issue, state law also holds that summary judgment should be denied.
The plaintiff had not yet had an opportunity to depose the defendants. This is a key part of proving a defendant’s state of mind. The court, therefore, reversed the dismissal of the NJLAD disability discrimination claim.
Workers in New Jersey and New York have rights when their employers engage in unlawful workplace practices, including disability discrimination. If you believe your employer has violated your legal rights, an experienced and knowledgeable employment attorney can help you assert a claim and recover damages. Please contact the Resnick Law Group today at 973-781-1204, 646-867-7997, or online to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case.