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New Jersey Supreme Court Rules for Plaintiff in Disability Discrimination Lawsuit

The Resnick Law Group achieved a major victory for one of our clients earlier this month, when the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that she did not have to show an “adverse employment action” in order to bring a claim under New Jersey disability discrimination law. The plaintiff alleged that her employer failed to provide a reasonable accommodation for her, and that this resulted in life altering injuries to her. The court also ruled that the claim was not barred by the state’s workers’ compensation law.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) protects workers against discrimination on the basis of disability. It defines this term very broadly to include illnesses that are “demonstrable…by accepted clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques.” The text of the NJLAD itself does not specifically require employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, but the New Jersey Administrative Code requires accommodations as long as they do not present an “undue hardship” for the employer. Failure to provide an accommodation is an “unlawful employment practice” under the NJLAD.

One question before the New Jersey Supreme Court was whether a plaintiff has to show an adverse employment action in order to make a claim for failure to accommodate a disability. An “adverse employment action” has typically been defined as a termination, suspension, or demotion. For the first time however, the high court decided that employees that suffer from a disability and do not necessarily fall into the above categories are also entitled to relief, and determined that an “adverse employment action” is not required to be shown in a reasonable accommodation case.

The court also had to decide whether the plaintiff’s lawsuit was barred by the Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA). The purpose of workers’ compensation insurance is to provide compensation for injuries on the job, without regard to fault. Since it is possible to recover damages for injuries without having to prove fault, the WCA makes it an exclusive remedy, with the only exception being cases involving “intentional wrong.”

The plaintiff is a middle school teacher who suffers from type 1 diabetes. She fainted in her classroom because of a hypoglycemic event, which she says happened because the school did not allow her to take her lunch earlier in the day. She suffered serious injuries from her fall, including a permanent loss of smell and taste. She filed suit against the school district, alleging failure to accommodate under the NJLAD. The trial court ruled against her because she was unable to show an “adverse employment action,” as defined by the law at that time. The Appellate Division reversed that ruling. The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court’s decision.

The state supreme court ruled in the plaintiff’s favor on both of the questions presented in the case. It held that an adverse employment action is not required to make a prima facie case for failure to accommodate. It cited a 2010 decision in which it stated that a situation where an employee had “to soldier on without a reasonable accommodation” could “constitute a hostile employment environment.”

With regard to the WCA’s “exclusive remedy” provision, the court noted that a 1990 amendment to the NJLAD made it clear that the statute “should be treated as supplemental to other remedies.” It ruled that the WCA does not bar the plaintiff’s lawsuit.

The employment lawyers at the Resnick Law Group are available to assist you in your disability dispute with an employer in New Jersey or New York. To schedule a confidential consultation with a member of our knowledgeable and experienced team, please contact us today online, at 973-781-1204, or at 646-867-7997.

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