Background: Disability Discrimination and the Requirement of Reasonable Accommodation
New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination bars employers from discriminating against employee’s because of a disability, provided they can perform the job with “reasonable accommodation.” Because no two employees or workplaces are the same, no accommodations will be the same for two employees, or reasonable for different employers. Thus, the regulations interpreting this requirement in the Law Against Discrimination require that employers must engage in an “interactive process” with a disabled employee to explore whether there are accommodations which the employer could implement to assist her in performing her duties without imposing an undue hardship on the employer.
The New Jersey Supreme Court recently explored these issues in the case of Richter vs. Oakland Board of Education.
The Richter Case
Mary Richter was a long time teacher for the Oakland, New Jersey Board of Education. She was also a diabetic. She requested that her schedule be changed to allow her to eat during an earlier lunch period because waiting until later would negatively effect her blood sugar levels. The accommodation was granted for one marking period, but then rescinded for the next. During a class period just prior to the later lunch period, Ms. Richter suffered a hypoglycemic event. She had a seizure in front of her students, during which she lost consciousness. She struck her head on a table and the floor, causing extensive bleeding. She was taken to the hospital for treatment. Richter suffered serious and permanent injuries, lost sick days, and had uncovered medical expenses. She filed a workers compensation claim which paid $18,94.94 toward her medical expenses, and $9,792.40 for temporary disability benefits. She also later received $77,200 for partial permanent disability benefits.
Thereafter, Richter sued the Board of Education and her principal for failing to accommodate her disability. She sought compensatory damages for economic, physical and emotional injuries, and punitive damages. In several summary judgment motions, the trial judge ruled that Ms. Richter’s claims were not barred by her workers compensation recovery, but that she did not meet the Law Against Discrimination’s requirement that she show an “adverse employment action” because she had not been fired or reassigned. The trial judge therefore dismissed her lawsuit.
The Appeal and Supreme Court Decision
Richter appealed, and eventually the matter was heard by the Supreme Court of New Jersey. The New Jersey Supreme Court rejected the trial judge’s decision and reinstated Richter’s lawsuit.
The Court rejected the proposition that an employee is required to show an adverse employment action to establish that her employer had failed to accommodate her disability. The Court explained the requirements for a failure to accommodate claim.
[T]o establish a failure-to-accommodate claim under the LAD, a plaintiff must demonstrate that he or she (1) “qualifies as an individual with a disability, or [ ] is perceived as having a disability, as that has been defined by statute”; (2) “is qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, or was performing those essential functions, either with or without reasonable accommodations”; and (3) that defendant “failed to reasonably accommodate [his or her] disabilities.” These elements clearly do not include the requirement that the employee be fired, demoted, or suffer any other adverse employment action.
Thus, the Court explained:
It is time to close debate on the elements of a failure-to-accommodate claim under the LAD…. We now formally hold that an adverse employment action is not a required element for a failure-to-accommodate claim.
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To best implement that legislative intent, we conclude that an employer’s inaction, silence, or inadequate response to a reasonable accommodation request is an omission that can give rise to a cause of action…. Stated otherwise, a failure-to-accommodate claim is not dependent on causing harm to the employee through an adverse employment action. And, certainly, the employer of an employee who suffers consequences from the employer’s failure to accommodate should not escape [New Jersey Law Against Discrimination] liability merely because those consequences do not fit neatly into a definition of adverse employment action. Indeed, while a lack of demonstrable consequences — whether in the form of an adverse action, of injuries like those sustained by Richter, or of some other type — might affect the damages to which an affected employee might be entitled, an employer’s failure to accommodate is itself an actionable harm.
Second, the Supreme Court agreed with the trial judge that the exclusivity clause of the Workers Compensation Act did not bar Richter’s lawsuit under the Law Against Discrimination despite her earlier workers compensation recovery.
We hold that the WCA’s exclusive remedy provision does not attach to Richter’s LAD claim. The LAD’s common law remedies made available through the 1990 amendments do not, in this instance, pose a conflict with the WCA. Each statute operates to fulfill different purposes, both protective of workers in the workplace. The statutes can function cumulatively and complementarily; they are not in tension, much less in conflict.
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In sum, the two legislative acts provide relief for separate wrongs and can co-exist in harmony, with the purposes of each fulfilled. Indeed, the two statutory schemes, harmonized, operate to prevent double recovery. With double recovery averted, there is no possible conflict. Thus, the full-throated pursuit of remedies available under the LAD for actionable disability discrimination may proceed unencumbered by the WCA exclusivity bar.
A disabled employee does not need to be fired or demoted to have a valid lawsuit against her employer for failing to reasonably accommodate her disability. All that is required is that the employer violated the law and she can show resulting damages. Likewise, an employee’s workers compensation suit will not bar her suit under the Law Against Discrimination for failure to accommodate her disability, although a portion of the damages she eventually recovers may be used to reimburse the employee’s medical expenses.
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