NJ Supreme Court Rules Adverse Employment Action Not Required for LAD Claim

NJ Supreme Court Rules Adverse Employment Action Not Required for LAD Claim

An adverse employment action isn't necessary to support a failure-to-accommodate claim under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD)...

An adverse employment action isn't necessary to support a failure-to-accommodate claim under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), according to a recent decision by the state’s highest court. In Mary Richter v. Oakland Board of Education et al., the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that a diabetic teacher who suffered injuries after her blood sugar dropped on the job may pursue her disability discrimination claim against her employer without demonstrating that she suffered an adverse employment action.

Failure to Accommodate Claim

Plaintiff Mary Richter, a middle school teacher who suffers from diabetes, alleged she fainted while teaching due to low blood sugar levels when she was unable to eat lunch at an earlier class period and suffered significant and permanent injuries. She further contended that the accident would not have occurred had the Oakland Board of Education (the Board) and her school’s principal, Gregg Desiderio, granted her accommodation request to eat lunch earlier. 

According to Richter, she believed that waiting until seventh period, which began at 1:05 p.m., to eat a meal would have a negative effect on her blood sugar levels due to the medications she takes for her diabetes. Therefore, she asked Desiderio to have her schedule adjusted so that she could have lunch during the earlier fifth period. Desiderio responded that he would "look into it."

While Richter’s request was ultimately granted for a few months, her schedule returned to the 1:05 lunch time for one day a week (Tuesday). Desiderio instructed her that if she wasn't feeling well during cafeteria duty, she could sit down and have a snack and then return to duty when she felt better. According to her complaint, Richter's blood-sugar levels on Tuesdays often fell below normal, requiring her to ingest three or more glucose tablets to try to keep her sugar elevated.

On Tuesday, March 5, 2013, towards the end of the sixth period, despite ingesting glucose tablets throughout the period, Richter suffered a hypoglycemic event in front of her students. She had a seizure and became unconscious causing her to strike her head and face on a lab table and the floor, and to bleed extensively.  Prior to that, Richter had never passed out at work.

As a result of her work-related injuries, Richter filed a workers' compensation claim. The Board paid $18,940.94 for her medical bills, $9,792.40 for temporary disability benefits and $77,200 for the permanent injuries she suffered. Richter also filed a lawsuit against the Board and Desiderio, individually and as principal of the school, alleging disability discrimination in violation of the LAD due to their alleged failure to accommodate her medical condition.

The motion judge granted defendants' motion for summary judgment dismissing Richter's complaint. The judge held that as a matter of law, Richter failed to prove a prima facie case of failure to accommodate her disability because she did not establish an adverse employment action.

The Appellate Division reversed, holding that an employee alleging disability discrimination for failure to accommodate under the LAD is not required to establish an adverse employment action to avoid summary judgment dismissal.

NJ Supreme Court’s Decision

The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed.

The Court recognized that although the LAD “does not explicitly address a reasonable accommodation requirement or claim” it observed that “New Jersey courts have uniformly held that the LAD nevertheless requires an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee’s disability.”

The Court further determined that an employer’s failure to accommodate is itself an actionable harm and that an “adverse employment action is not a required element for a failure-to-accommodate claim,” as Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote on behalf of the unanimous court. The Court determined that a  failure-to-accommodate claim is not dependent on causing harm to an employee through an adverse employment action.

According to the Court, the wrongful act for purposes of a failure-to-accommodate claim is the employer’s failure to perform its duty to accommodate. Accordingly, a further adverse employment action is unnecessary. “To best implement the Legislature’s stated intent to eradicate discrimination … the Court concludes 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.” According to the Court, an alternate conclusion “would essentially render the reasonable accommodation requirement unenforceable" where an employer could “escape LAD liability merely because those consequences do not fit neatly into a definition of adverse employment action.”

The New Jersey Supreme Court further clarified “[w]hile 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,” Justice LaVecchia wrote. “The Court declines to adopt the approach taken by some courts—that the employer’s failure to reasonably accommodate is ‘the’ adverse employment action for purposes of considering the rights of a person with disabilities in the workplace,” LaVecchia added.

Message for New Jersey Employers

The decision in Mary Richter v. Oakland Board of Education et al. clearly makes it more difficult for New Jersey employers to defend certain claims under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. By removing the requirement that plaintiffs show they have suffered an adverse employment action, the court has effectively lowered the bar for failure-to-accommodate claims. Employers should be conscious of the new legal standard when responding to requests for accommodation.

If you have questions, please contact us

If you have any questions or if you would like to discuss the matter further, we encourage you to contact the Scarinci Hollenbeck attorney with whom you work or feel free to contact me, Jorge de Armas, directly, at 201-896-4100.

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AboutJorge R. de Armas

Jorge R. de Armas, Counsel, is a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Public Law group. Mr. de Armas has fifteen years of experience and demonstrated ability in the representation of corporate, individual, and government clients.Full Biography

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