Missed Opportunity: Grande v. St. Clare’s
July 18, 2017
Jennifer Vorih, Esq.
Ty Hyderally, Esq.
The Supreme Court of New Jersey recently affirmed an Appellate Division decision that Maryanne Grande, a Registered Nurse, had been wrongly denied her day in court against her former employer, St. Clare’s Health System. Maryanne Grande v. St. Clare’s Health System, 2017 N.J. Lexis 746 (New Jersey, July 12, 2017). In doing so, however, the Court missed an opportunity to clarify and streamline the process of litigating disability discrimination cases.
Maryanne Grande worked for St. Clare’s from 2000 to 2010. From 2007 to 2010, she suffered three injuries on the job. After each injury, she received treatment and was able to return to work. However, after she was injured in February 2010, she returned to work on a light-duty status initially, and when she attempted to return to work full-duty, she had to undergo a functional capacity evaluation and was then fired.
The trial court held that Ms. Grande had not made out a prima facie case of disability discrimination because she had not made out the second prong of her prima facie case of disability discrimination by showing that she had been doing her job to her employer’s reasonable expectations prior to being terminated; the Court granted summary judgment to St. Clare’s. The Appellate Division reversed, as there were several issues of fact in dispute which the Court held were essential to evaluating Ms. Grande’s claims. Because there was a dissent in the Appellate Division decision, St. Clare’s appealed the matter as of right to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which affirmed that Ms. Grande had properly made out her prima facie case. All of the Justices agreed that there were issues of material fact in dispute, and that the trial court had wrongly denied Ms. Grande the right to proceed to trial. An employee finally getting her day in court is worth celebrating.
However, Justice Jaynee LaVecchia also filed a concurring opinion, as she saw that the full Court had missed an opportunity to clarify and streamline the “convoluted frameworks” the Court has “adopted to evaluate LAD disability discrimination claims,” in line with the New Jersey Supreme Court’s earlier opinion in Jansen v. Food Circus Supermarkets, Inc. 110 N.J. 363 (1988). Justice LaVecchia also wrote to “underscore” that a terminated employee in a disability discrimination claim has a “modest” burden “regarding her ability to perform the essential functions of her job.” Grande, supra, *43-44 (LaVecchia, J., concurring).
In its opinion, the majority relied on Jansen, and held that when an employer admits that it terminated an employee because of her disability, courts must still use the traditional burden-shifting test developed by the United States Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). The majority also confirmed and clarified that the question of whether the employer engaged appropriately in the required interactive process to find a reasonable accommodation belongs should be addressed in the second prong of the prima facie case.
LaVecchia, in her concurring opinion, wrote that Jansen indicated that an employer’s admission that it terminated an employee due to a disability constitutes direct evidence of discrimination. Thus, the burden-shifting approach of McDonnell Douglas “does not serve a useful purpose,” because that approach was developed as “a tool to help plaintiffs raise an inference of disparate treatment by an employer.” Such help is unnecessary where “the employer explicitly admits to treating an employee differently based on a disability or perceived disability.” Grande, supra, *57-58 (LaVecchia, J., concurring).
All parties to the litigation agreed that St. Clare’s admission that it fired Grande because it believed her “limitations” prevented her from doing her job made this is a direct evidence case. The Supreme Court contorted itself and the facts, to find that this case involved circumstantial evidence of discrimination, rather than direct evidence.
While the majority opinion holds onto the burden-shifting framework, Justice LaVecchia’s concurring opinion may signal a trend away from using the framework in future disability discrimination cases involving direct evidence in New Jersey.
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