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New Jersey Supreme Court Ruling Allows Treating Physicians to Give Opinion Testimony in Disability Discrimination Cases

A New Jersey Supreme Court ruling in a police dispatcher’s disability discrimination case has provided valuable guidance and help for any employee pursuing a disability discrimination case under the Law Against Discrimination. The ruling allows employees with disabilities to use the opinion testimony of their treating doctors and potentially avoid the possibly expensive prospect of hiring an expert witness.

The employee in this case was a police dispatcher who began working for a local township in 1999. Four years into her job, her doctors diagnosed her with inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS). Later, her psychiatrist diagnosed her with an anxiety condition. Both doctors concluded that the dispatcher’s job would likely not interfere with her health if she stayed on day shifts, but midnight shifts might exacerbate her symptoms, in terms of both IBS and anxiety.

At first, the township provided her with nothing but daytime shifts. Eventually, though, with the dispatcher still unwilling to work midnight shifts, the township terminated her.

The dispatcher filed a disability discrimination lawsuit against the township, alleging that it violated the LAD. In her case, the dispatcher did not retain any expert witnesses. To support her claims of disability, she intended to rely on the testimony of her gastroenterologist and her psychiatrist. She did not submit either as expert witnesses but sought only to present their factual and opinion testimony regarding their treatment of her.

At trial, the trial judge wouldn’t allow either doctor to give any opinion testimony, even those opinions that related to the doctor’s diagnosis and treatment of the dispatcher. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the township.

The case went to the Appellate Division, which reversed the judgment for the employer and ordered a new trial. The trial judge’s limitations on the gastroenterologist’s testimony were not proper. The New Jersey Supreme Court upheld that order of a new trial.

The gastroenterologist should have been allowed to give his full testimony insofar as it related to his care and treatment of the dispatcher, according to the court. New Jersey law has long been clear that treating physicians are not testifying as expert opinion witnesses, but they are still allowed to state their opinions as long as those opinions are “rationally based on the perception of the witness, and will assist in understanding the witness’s testimony or in determining a fact in issue.” If the opinion testimony extended beyond the care of the individual patient, “expert testimony may be required.”

The high court’s ruling is an important victory for employees seeking to pursue disability discrimination claims, opening the door for employees with disabilities to pursue their LAD claims against their employers without having to engage in the potentially burdensome and expensive task of retaining an outside expert witness to give opinion testimony at trial.

If you have a disability and have suffered from workplace discrimination as a result, act promptly to protect your rights. Talk to the New Jersey disability discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates, who have many decades of combined experience working tirelessly and diligently on behalf of workers harmed by discrimination. Contact us online or at (212) 248-7431 today to set up a free and confidential consultation with one of our skilled and experienced attorneys.

More blog posts:

New Jersey Supreme Court Upholds $1.4M Emotional Damage Award in Race Discrimination Case, New Jersey Employment Lawyer Blog, March 16, 2017

NJ Supreme Court: Employers Cannot Force Employees to Accept Shortened Period for Pursuing Discrimination Claims, New Jersey Employment Lawyer Blog, March 8, 2017

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