A Win for Disabled Employees in NJ!
June 14, 2019
By Francine Foner, Esq. and Ty Hyderally, Esq.
On June 11, 2019, the Appellate Division liberally construed the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”) and the New Jersey Workers Compensation Act (“WCA”) to afford employees greater protections and damages. In the published decision of Richter v. Oakland Bd. Of Education, 2019 N.J. Super. LEXIS 84, the Appellate Division eased the standards required for a prima facie claim of failure to accommodate a disability under the LAD. The Richter Court definitively ruled that no adverse action, such as termination, is required for a prima facie claim of failure to accommodate under the LAD.
Mary Richter, a middle school teacher suffering from diabetes, alleged that she fainted while teaching due to low blood sugar levels. She had requested to have an earlier lunch period to avoid a decrease of her blood sugar levels, due to her medical condition, but her request was denied. When the school denied her this accommodation, Ms. Richter took glucose pills to maintain her blood sugar levels, but still fainted while at work one day as a result of reduced blood sugar levels due to her delayed lunch period. Ms. Richter hit her head and suffered several injuries when she fainted.
Even though Ms. Richter had not been terminated, or suffered any other adverse employment action, the Appellate Division held that she could nevertheless pursue a claim for failure to accommodate under the LAD. In so holding, the Richter Court primarily relied upon two prior New Jersey Supreme Court opinions, Victor v. State, 203 N.J. 383 (2010) and Royster v. NJ State Police, 227 N.J. 482 (2017). In Victor, the Supreme Court opined that the “right set of facts” which would eliminate a need to show an adverse action would be that in which the employer’s “failure to accommodate forced the employee to soldier on without a reasonable accommodation,” or otherwise “cry out for a remedy.” Victor at 421-22. However, the Victor court concluded that the record in the case before it did not meet that standard. In Royster, the Supreme Court recited the standard to establish a failure to accommodate claim, leaving out the requirement of any adverse action. Thus, neither case contained an express holding on the facts before it that no adverse action is needed to establish a prima facie claim of failure to accommodate under the LAD. However, the Richter Court did just that, concluding that “Richter’s claim for failure to accommodate her diabetes disability should not have been dismissed on summary judgment based on a lack of adverse employment action.” Richter, *17.
In addition, the Richter Court held that the plaintiff could “present her bodily injury claims directly arising from her LAD claim to the jury.” Id. at *29. Such a holding is noteworthy, since personal injury claims against employers in New Jersey are normally covered exclusively by the Workers’ Compensation Act (“WCA”). The WCA bars employees from suing their employers for personal injuries, except in the rare circumstance where the employer’s conduct constitutes an “intentional wrong.” In Richter, the Court held that presentation of Ms. Richter’s personal injury claim in her LAD action was not barred by the WCA, because the school principal intentionally refused Richter’s accommodation request, and it was “substantially certain” that Ms. Richter could suffer a hypoglycemic event that could cause bodily injuries. However, the Richter Court also held that the employer would be entitled to a credit for medical bills and disability payments paid to the plaintiff pursuant to her WCA claim. This holding is likely to encourage plaintiffs to include personal injury claims with their LAD failure to accommodate claims where the employer denied an accommodation and it was substantially certain that an injury could result from such failure to accommodate.
Further, the Richter Court opined that since it had reinstated Plaintiff’s LAD claim and since the LAD allows for punitive damages, the jury must decide whether Ms. Richter met the standard for punitive damages under New Jersey’s Punitive Damages Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.12(a). Id. at *24-225. Such a holding suggests that in any LAD case, the jury should be permitted to determine whether punitive damages are warranted, contrary to prior holdings of some trial courts.
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