A recent ruling from the New Jersey Supreme Court represents a very positive, and very crucial, clarification of an element of disability discrimination law in this state. Going forward, employees whose employers improperly failed to accommodate their disabilities can be confident that they do not need proof of a separate adverse employment action to win their cases. Now more than ever, if your employer failed to accommodate your disability, you should take aggressive action and seek out a knowledgeable New Jersey disability discrimination lawyer right away.
M.R., the employee in the case the Supreme Court recently addressed, was a middle school science teacher with type I diabetes. At the start of the 2012-13 school year, she received a schedule she considered problematic. The schedule called for her lunch break to start at 1:05 pm. She asked her principal for an earlier lunch period, fearing that such a late lunch could cause her blood sugar problems. Her schedule was not changed.
One day in March 2013, the teacher suffered a diabetes-induced medical trauma during her last class before lunch. She experienced a seizure and became unconscious. In the related fall, she hit her head on a table and bled extensively.
Based on all of those events, the teacher took multiple legal actions. She filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits and she also filed a Law Against Discrimination (LAD) lawsuit based upon her employer’s failure to accommodate her disability of diabetes.
The employer fought back in two ways. It attempted to use a legal concept related to workers’ compensation law called the “exclusive remedy” to block M.R.’s lawsuit, and it also attempted to use the fact that the employer never took an adverse employment action against M.R. as a basis for getting the lawsuit tossed.
A failure-to-accommodate claim does not require proof of an adverse employment action
The high court’s decision was a resounding win for this teacher and for all workers in situations like hers.
First, the high court agreed with the Appellate Division in ruling that a worker harmed due to her employer’s inaction was not required by the LAD to prove that the employer had proactively taken an adverse employment action. While the Supreme Court had previously ruled that workers with disabilities who “toil on,” even after their employers denied their reasonable accommodation requests or failed to act on those requests, “will generally” suffer adverse consequences, that ruling did not answer the fundamental question about whether or not an identifiable adverse action by the employer is required by the law.
This ruling answered that question and declared that it is not necessary in a failure-to-accommodate case like M.R.’s. The Supreme Court ruling stated that New Jersey law “now formally holds that an adverse employment action is not a required element for a failure-to-accommodate claim. The wrongful act for purposes of a failure-to-accommodate claim is the employer’s failure to perform its duty, not a further adverse employment action that the employee must suffer.” To meet the Legislature’s policy goal of stamping out disability discrimination, the law must deem “an employer’s inaction, silence, or inadequate response to a reasonable accommodation request” to be “an omission that can give rise to a” valid disability discrimination lawsuit.
Filing for workers’ compensation won’t derail your LAD lawsuit
The Supreme Court also ruled that M.R.’s workers’ compensation claim did not negatively impact her ability to pursue a disability discrimination lawsuit. The law in New Jersey, as is true in most states, says that, when you are hurt at work and you file a claim for workers’ compensation benefits, those benefits are the only compensation you can receive.
That rule exists, in large part, to stop workers from filing for workers’ compensation benefits and also filing an injury lawsuit against their employer based upon those same injuries.
The Supreme Court explained that a workers’ compensation claim and a LAD lawsuit are different. The LAD and its right to sue were created as a supplement to other statutory rights, such as the right to file a workers’ compensation claim. A workers’ compensation claim and a hypothetical injury lawsuit against one’s employer seek to right the same wrong through two different legal vehicles. A claim for workers’ compensation benefits and a LAD lawsuit is different. The Workers’ Compensation Act and the LAD “operate 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,” the court wrote.
This new Supreme Court decision is a clear win for New Jersey workers with disabilities. If you are someone whose reasonable accommodation request has been wrongfully rejected or ignored, you may be entitled to compensation through legal action. Reach out to the skilled New Jersey disability discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates without delay. Our knowledgeable attorneys have many years of fighting for New Jersey workers and are ready to get started on your behalf. Contact us online or at (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation.