Adverse Employment Action Is Not Required To Establish A Failure To Accommodate Claim Under The NJLAD And Subsequent Bodily Injury Claim Is Not Barred By The Workers' Compensation Act

Labor and Employment Law Alert

 

In a published opinion, the Appellate Division in Richter v. Oakland Board of Education clarified on June 11, 2019, that an “adverse employment action” is not required to establish a prima facie case of failure to accommodate a disability claim. The Court also held that bodily injury claims resulting from an alleged violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) may not be barred by the Workers’ Compensation Act (the Act), where the injury results from an intentional act. The employer, however, would be entitled to a credit based upon the amount it paid in the employee’s corresponding workers’ compensation claim.

The Facts. Plaintiff Mary Richter (Plaintiff) is a middle school teacher suffering from diabetes who alleges that she fainted, suffering serious injuries while teaching, due to low blood sugar levels when she was unable to eat lunch during an earlier class period. Plaintiff alleges that the accident she suffered could have been prevented had defendants, Oakland Board of Education (the Board) and principal Gregg Desiderio had granted her accommodation request to eat lunch earlier.

The Trial Court.
Defendants moved for summary judgment to dismiss Plaintiff’s complaint with prejudice, arguing that Plaintiff did not establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination for failure to accommodate because she suffered no adverse employment action. Plaintiff cross-moved for summary judgment claiming that she had suffered an adverse employment action. The Board also sought summary judgment as to Plaintiff’s bodily injury claim or in the alternative to receive 100% credit for the money it paid through Plaintiff’s workers’ compensation claim. The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of Defendants, ruling that the motion to dismiss the bodily injury claim was also denied as moot. Concurrently, plaintiff’s cross-motion was denied. In its opinion, the trial court indicated that the New Jersey Supreme Court may later decide to eliminate “adverse employment action” but it had not done so yet.

On Appeal.
Plaintiff appealed. The Appellate Division reversed, reinstating Plaintiff’s complaint, holding that there is no requirement that a plaintiff alleging disability discrimination based upon failure to accommodate needs to establish an adverse employment action. The Court repeating the prima facie elements as set forth in Victor v. State, 203 N.J. 383 (2008) and Royster v. N.J. State Police, 227 N.J. 482 (2017) held unequivocally that despite dispute in prior case law, adverse employment action is not required in a failure to accommodate cause of action. The Court in Royster citing Victor ruled that to establish a failure-to-accommodate claim under the NJLAD, a plaintiff must demonstrate that he or she: (1) qualifies as an individual with a disability; (2) is qualified to perform the essential functions of her job or was performing those essential functions, with or without reasonable accommodation; and (3) that defendant failed to reasonably accommodate his or her disabilities. Royster, 227 N.J. at 500 (citing Victor, 203 N.J. at 410, 421). Accordingly, based upon the Court’s interpretation of Royster and Victor, Plaintiff’s LAD claim for failure to accommodate her diabetes disability should not have been dismissed on summary judgment based on lack of adverse employment action. Interestingly, however, the Court did agree with the Board and Desiderio that Plaintiff did not in fact suffer an adverse employment action when it allegedly did not accommodate her. Likewise, the Court upheld the trial court’s denial of Plaintiff’s cross-motion for summary judgment, explaining that a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether the Board and Desiderio did in fact fail to engage in the interactive process.

The third and final issue presented to the Appellate Division was whether the Act bars Plaintiff’s bodily injury claim and, if not, whether the Board should receive a credit based upon the amount it paid for Plaintiff’s workers’ compensation claim. After detailed examination, the Court explained that it is not in dispute that Plaintiff’s injury arose while she was acting in the scope of her employment resulting in $18,940.94 in medical bills, $9,792.40 in temporary disability benefits and $77,200.00 for permanent injury. While the Board argues that the Act is the exclusive remedy for Plaintiff’s injuries, the Court disagreed, finding that the Act carves out an intentional wrong exception to the exclusivity of relief provided by the Act. Here, Plaintiff alleges that Desiderio intentionally refused Plaintiff’s accommodation request, being substantially certain that Plaintiff could suffer a hypoglycemic event which might result in bodily injury. Therefore, the Court in permitting Plaintiff to proceed to trial with her bodily injury claim, agreed that the Board should receive a credit; however, limited the credit to two-thirds of the balance with her lawyer being permitted to keep the remaining one-third plus costs up to $750 consistent with section 40 of the Act.

The Bottom Line. Although this opinion is primarily focused on the legal standard for failure to accommodate claims, there is still a valuable lesson for employers. Requests for accommodation should always be taken seriously and employers should document the interactive process carefully to avoid both litigation and potential workplace accidents.