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Without Proof that a Nurse Was a Danger to Herself or Others, New Jersey Hospital Couldn’t Fire Her Due to a Perceived Disability

In general, the law opposes employers discriminating against employees based upon a disability or a perceived disability. This isn’t true, though, when an employee’s disability could translate to a risk to herself, her co-workers, or the employer’s customers or clients. The key then, for any employee pursuing a New Jersey disability discrimination case, is to show that such a risk doesn’t exist. For one North Jersey nurse, the fact that there was no proof that she was a “materially enhanced risk of serious harm” to herself, her patients, or her co-workers meant that she was allowed to go forward with her disability discrimination case, according to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

The plaintiff was an experienced registered nurse who had begun, in 2000, working in a hospital unit where roughly 50% of the patients were stroke victims. These patients needed considerable assistance with regular daily activities. Starting in 2007, the nurse had several work-related accidents. First, she injured her left shoulder moving a patient. That injury required surgery. Then she injured her right shoulder a year later. That injury required no medical action. Then she re-injured her left shoulder, requiring another surgery. Finally, she injured her cervical spine, which required back surgery.

The employer, after the spine injury, ordered the nurse to undergo physical testing. The test results stated that the nurse could do her job but with limitations. The employer subsequently fired the nurse, concluding that it could not accommodate the nurse’s physical limitations.

The nurse sued her former employer for violating the Law Against Discrimination. In New Jersey, it is prohibited to discriminate against an employee based upon her disability or based upon a perceived disability. This nurse claimed each of these in her lawsuit. The employer asked the trial court to issue a summary judgment in its favor. The nurse, it argued, was unable to perform the essential duties of her job, so it was not obligated to provide a reasonable accommodation.

The trial court agreed with the employer and issued the summary judgment in its favor. The Appellate Division reversed that ruling and revived the case, and now the Supreme Court has affirmed what the Appellate Division decided.

The Supreme Court, in siding with the nurse, rejected multiple arguments asserted by the employer. One of the arguments advanced by this employer was that New Jersey law allows employers to discriminate if an employee’s disability represents “a materially enhanced risk of substantial harm in the workplace.” This is true, but New Jersey requires, in this scenario, that the employer establish that continuing to employ the employee with disabilities “would be hazardous to the safety or health of such individual, other employees, clients or customers.”

This hospital didn’t have that kind of proof. The evidence showed that the nurse had never caused a patient or a co-worker to suffer an injury; in fact, one injury occurred as she successfully protected a falling patient. The only person who ever suffered injuries was the plaintiff herself, and the employer’s evidence didn’t show that the nurse’s “perceived susceptibility to injury posed a ‘materially enhanced risk of serious harm’ to herself or her patients.”

Without clear proof that the nurse’s condition placed her at an elevated risk of hurting herself, a patient, or a co-worker, the employer didn’t have enough basis for a summary judgment in its favor.

Whether you believe you’ve been subjected to discrimination based upon a disability, a perceived disability, or some other prohibited basis, you should take prompt action and retain counsel right away. The experienced New Jersey disability discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates are here to help. Our team has been assisting workers with their discrimination actions in both state and federal courts for many years. Contact us online or at (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation with one of our skilled and experienced attorneys to find out how we can help you get results.

More blog posts:

Making Sure You Get the Full Benefit of Your New Jersey Discrimination Damages Award, New Jersey Employment Lawyer Blog, May 12, 2017

New Jersey State Police Employee Receives $500K For Employer’s Failure to Accommodate His Disability, New Jersey Employment Lawyer Blog, April 13, 2017

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