Following our prior client alert published while this matter was before Appellate Division, the New Jersey Supreme Court has now weighed-in, in Richter v. Oakland Board of Education. On June 8, 2021, the Court formally held that an “adverse employment action” is not a required element for a failure to accommodate claim. The Court also concluded that an employer’s inaction, silence, or inadequate response to a reasonable accommodation request is an omission that can give rise to causes of action under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). The Court also held that the Workers Compensation Act’s exclusive remedies provisions do not apply to a NJLAD claim. The employer, however, would be entitled to a partial credit based upon the amount it paid in the employee’s corresponding workers’ compensation claim. The employer is not reimbursed or given a credit for the fees the plaintiff paid to counsel out of the compensation award.
The Facts. Plaintiff Mary Richter 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 if Defendants, Oakland Board of Education (the Board) and principal Gregg Desiderio, granted her accommodation request to eat lunch earlier.
The Ruling. When the parties each moved for summary judgment in the trial court, the court ruled in favor of the Defendants. Plaintiff appealed and the Appellate Division reversed. Defendants filed a Petition for Certification. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Plaintiff declaring that the overriding purpose of NJLAD is to eliminate obstacles in the workplace to enable people to work. Persons with disabilities who have requested a reasonable accommodation do not have to wait for an adverse employment action to follow the employer’s denial, inaction or refusal, before bringing a complaint to compel the employer to fulfill its affirmative obligation.
In addressing the exclusivity remedy of the Workers Compensation Act (WCA), the Court followed the will and intent of the Legislature to harmonize the statutory schemes of both NJLAD and WCA opining that each statute fulfills different purposes but both protect workers. The statutes function cumulatively and complementarily, but do not provide a worker with a double recovery.
The Court affirmed and modified the Appellate Division ruling and remanded to the trial court for trial. Directions were provided to the trial judge that if the jury awarded Plaintiff the same or in excess of her medical and temporary disability benefits, a lien for the employer attaches, but the jury may not include fees and costs paid to Plaintiff’s compensation attorney. The jury may not be presented with evidence of Plaintiff’s medical expenses and lost wages.
The Bottom Line.
- An adverse employment action is not a required element of a failure-to-accommodate claim.
- A failure-to-accommodate claim is not dependent on causing harm to the employee through an adverse employment action.
- The Worker’s Compensation Act’s exclusive remedy provision does not bar a NJLAD claim because the statutes provide relief for different workplace claims.