SERVING OUR CLIENTS AND COMMUNITY DURING COVID-19

Articles Posted in Americans with Disabilities Act

For the past year, employees have been undergoing medical screenings and answering questions about their personal health to gain access to their physical workplaces. Employers can lawfully request their health status or require them to take leave from work if they appear to have symptoms of COVID-19. Despite laws protecting employee privacy and the dignity of being in control of our own medical decisions, the public health emergency resulting from the spread of COVID-19 has drastically changed the landscape when it comes to employment decisions based on disability or perceived disability, the duty to reasonably accommodate and the prohibition against workplace retaliation.

6AE55F99-A017-42B1-BEAB-4D7220445832-300x169The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a federal agency that enforces workplace anti-discrimination laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. The Americans with Disabilities Act makes discrimination based on disability illegal and protects from retaliation individuals who exercise their rights under that law. Other laws, including state and local laws, such as the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and the New York City Human Rights Law, provide employees with additional protections. Anti-discrimination laws continue to apply during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they must coexist with guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and state and local health authorities concerning, among other things, an employer’s right to access employees’ medical information and perform health screenings in the workplace. The intertwining of anti-discrimination laws and public health regulations in the current climate has created a question about whether a COVID-19 infection or perceived infection qualifies an employee for anti-discrimination protection based on disability. The answer will be different depending on whether federal or state law governs the employment relationship, and if state law, which state.

Disability discrimination occurs under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act when an employer treats an employee unfavorably because he or she has a disability, has a history of a disability (such as cancer that has entered remission), or because the employer believes the employee has or used to have a disability. However, not all medical conditions equate to disabilities under the legal definition of the term. A person can show that he or she has a disability in one of three ways: (1) he or she has a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity (such as walking, hearing, learning, or limits the operation of a major bodily function); (2) he or she has a history of such a disability (past depression that is currently being successfully treated); or (3) he or she is subject to an adverse employment action (such as demotion, termination or a change in job duties or pay) due to the employer’s belief that he or she has a physical or mental impairment that is more than something minor and temporary.

Statistics show people with disabilities in the United States are twice as likely to be unemployed than those without a disability. The issue has been exacerbated during the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused joblessness to rise and an increase of workplace disability discrimination. But underlying the conversation about getting people with disabilities back to work is a controversial debate about where and what type of work people with disabilities should have access to and be provided reasonable accommodations.

6AE55F99-A017-42B1-BEAB-4D7220445832-300x169In September 2020, Governor Murphy announced that a total of $1,312,500 of CARES Act funding will be used to reopen 26 sheltered workshop programs throughout New Jersey which have been closed for close to a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In making this announcement, supporters credited sheltered workshops with providing “a positive and valuable service for our developmentally disabled community”, and “a safe work environment that cultivates their skills and abilities”. However just 4 months later, in January 2021, some of those same supporters advanced the argument that our state government should be doing more to help individuals with disabilities find inclusive and competitive employment. So what is a sheltered workshop and how is it different from an inclusive and competitive workplace?

A sheltered workshop is an employer that is authorized under New Jersey’s Wage and Hour Law to employ individuals with disabilities at a rate less than the minimum wage. Specifically, Subchapter 9 of the Wage and Hour Law, defines “individual with disability” as someone whose earning capacity is impaired by a physical or mental disability and “sheltered workshop” as a charitable organization focused on rehabilitation, employment or vocational training for individuals whose earning capacity is thus impaired. The law is based on the faulty logic that a person’s disability is the main factor impairing his or her earning potential, and not the law itself which explicitly degrades that potential. These sheltered workshops apply for permits with the Office of Wage and Hour Compliance which authorize them to employ individuals with disabilities at less than minimum wage. Only people with disabilities can be employed under these special permits, ensuring that all non-disabled employees are paid higher wages.

Disability discrimination remains a persistent problem in the workplace. But it does not happen only at work. Last month, a Norwood, New Jersey teenager was cut from her school’s volleyball team because she has epilepsy. After her father reported what he believed to be discriminatory conduct and demanded that the school adhere to her rights under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, she was permitted back on the team. Once she was playing again, however, she was subjected to bullying and harassment from her teammates that lasted the entire school year according to the Complaint filed by her father on October 1, 2020.

fullsizeoutput_3f-300x169Norwood is a small K-8 district where the minor plaintiff (referred to by her initials, EP) received special education and related services due to several disabilities including social anxiety and epilepsy. In addition to being a special education student at Norwood public school, EP was also a member of the volleyball team. Along with her teammates, she tried out for and made the team in her 6th and 7th grade years. When she tried out in her 8thgrade year, she was shocked when she found out that she was the only 8thgrade student who did not make it. When her father addressed his daughter’s removal from the volleyball team with school administrators, EP was allowed back on the team, but was subject to bullying by her teammates for the rest of the school year.

The family filed a Complaint in the New Jersey Superior Court for Bergen County against the Norwood Board of Education and Vito DeLaura, the principal of Norwood public school, alleging violations of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act. In the lawsuit, the family alleges that Mr. DeLaura, who they claim has a history of singling out and humiliating EP due to her disabilities, instructed the volleyball coach not to let EP play. Specifically, the lawsuit claims the volleyball coach cut EP from the team because her epilepsy required the school to hire a nurse who would be present at all games and practices, creating a significant financial burden on the school district. The family claims that the subsequent bullying was due to EP’s disabilities and was not addressed properly by the school.

Under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), an employee is entitled to reasonable accommodations at his or her workplace when he or she has a disability and the accommodation allows him or her to carry out basic job functions. But what if the employee requires medical leave to seek treatment for the disability? How long can the requested leave be? What if the employee’s time off under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has already been exhausted or is unavailable? And how can the employee prove that he or she would still be able to perform basic job functions if the accommodation is provided?

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The Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey answered these questions in a recent decision in the case of Pritchett v. New Jersey, when it held that leaves of absence are available accommodations under the LAD. In upholding the reasonableness of a request for a 4month extension of a medical leave, the Court determined that even unpaid leave that exceeds FMLA entitlements can be considered a reasonable accommodation, and should be assessed on a case by case basis. Additionally, the Court found that the LAD does not require expert testimony as to the individual employee’s ability to return to work. Such testimony need only attest to the fact that someone with the same disability could potentially function in the workplace.

In 2006, Shelley Pritchett was hired as a corrections officer at the Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC), and within a year, she was promoted to senior corrections officer. As a routine part of her job, Pritchett escorted inmates through and around the prison, responded to codes, and intervened to end physical fights between inmates when necessary. On June 8, 2011, Pritchett broke up a fight among several inmates and injured her neck, back and knee. Due to her injuries, Pritchett took medical leave pursuant to the FMLA until September 21, 2011, exhausting all of her available FMLA leave.

Governor Murphy signed legislation yesterday that amends the New Jersey Family Leave Act to provide job protections to employees who need to take leave from work during the COVID-19 epidemic in order to care for a family member because of qualifying reasons relating to the coronavirus. The passing of S2374 is part of a series of new laws enacted to address the COVID-19 pandemic and the severe impact it is having on New Jersey workers both at home and at their place of work.

IMG_4018-300x169In a press release, Governor Murphy said, “New Jerseyans should not have to make a decision between caring for a loved one with COVID-19 and keeping their job.  Our state is already home to the nation’s most comprehensive Family Leave Act, and it’s only right that we expand these protections to meet the unprecedented health crisis we are facing.”

The New Jersey Family Leave Act provides eligible employees with up to twelve (12) weeks of job protected leave for certain qualifying reasons relating to family leave.  These include bonding with a new born, adopting a child, the placing of a child into foster care with the employee or providing care to a family member who is suffering from serious health condition. The New Jersey Family Leave Act does not permit employees to take leave for their own serious health condition and therefore does not permit employees to take leave for their own heath related COVID-19 reason.  Employees who are suffering from COVID-19 could be eligible for leave under other laws such as the Family and Medical Leave Act, New Jersey Law Against Discrimination  or Americans with Disabilities Act.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has issued an important decision holding that an employer’s refusal to permit an employee to use medical marijuana can constitute a violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The New Jersey Legislature has in recent years recognized the medical benefits of cannabis use to treat symptoms of certain medical conditions. As a result, New Jersey has enacted progressive legislation, including enacting the Compassionate Use Act supporting the use of medicinal marijuana. The New Jersey Supreme Court’s ruling provides greater job protection to New Jersey employees treating serious medical conditions with medicinal marijuana and affirms New Jersey’s position on the use marijuana as a legitimate method of medical treatment.

IMG_1040-300x169In Wild v. Carriage Funeral Holdings, Inc., the plaintiff, Justin Wild, was employed with the defendant company, Feeney Funeral Home, LLC as a licensed Funeral Director. In 2015, Wild was diagnosed with cancer. His treating Physician prescribed medicinal marijuana as a component of his cancer treatment–primarily to help manage pain. Wild did not disclose this treatment method to his employer, but on days he worked, Wild would only take his prescribed medical marijuana after his shift had ended.

In May of 2016, Wild was involved in a motor vehicle collision during work. Another driver had run a stop sign and struck Wild’s vehicle. As a result of the accident, Wild required medical attention. At the hospital, Wild disclosed to his treating physician that he had a prescription for and had been using medical marijuana to treat his cancer. Upon inspection, the physician concluded the Wild was not under the influence of marijuana at the time of the incident.

New Jersey law provides for strong protections for disabled employees who suffer discrimination at the workplace. What is widely considered as on the most powerful anti-discrimination laws in the country, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination bars discrimination of individuals based on protected characteristics in the terms and conditions of employment. The law specifically prohibits discrimination based on an employee’s disability or perceived disability and requires employers to engage in an interactive process in order to determine whether a reasonable accommodation can be provided to employees with a disability. What exactly this process and the resulting accommodations may consist of has been established by various court case rulings since the law’s passing in 1945.

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Tynan v. Vicinage 13 is a landmark disability discrimination and failure to reasonable accommodated case that was decided in 2002 by a New Jersey Superior Court in the Appellate Division.  The plaintiff employee in this case was employed by Vicinage 13 of Superior Court as the Hunterdon County Jury Manager.  She suffered from a combination of physical and mental disabilities including migraines, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, irritable bowel syndrome, and hypertension. The plaintiff claimed that these disabilities were exacerbated by harassment and mistreatment from her supervisor at Vicinage 13. On multiple occasions, her supervisor issued disciplinary actions against Ms. Tyan for minor oversights and threatened to terminate her employment regularly. The stress caused by the severe treatment and allegedly hostile work environment exacerbated Ms. Tynan’s disabilities and caused her to become sicker, both mentally and physically. Ms. Tynan complained formally to the Assistant Trial Court Administrato and the court’s Human Resources Division, describing her disabilities, the supervisor’s behavior, and a need for accommodations. Tynan was provided with a plan to remedy the situation involving processes of mediation between her and her supervisor.

Shortly after this plan was created, Ms. Tynan’s exacerbated medical conditions caused her to require a leave from her employment with Vicinage 13. She was approved for family leave and planned to return approximately 11 months later. During this leave, Ms. Tynan received treatment for various disabilities, particularly for her depression and hypertension. Her treating physicians recommended that Ms. Tynan continue her leave from Vicinage 13, and that it would be important for her to report to a different administrator upon return as a result of the extreme stress that Pardo’s treatment caused Ms. Tynan. At the end of her planned family leave, Ms. Tynan requested additional time off and to report to a different administrator upon return. The employer denied both of these accommodations and told Ms. Tynan that if she did not report to work immediately, she will be considered to have resigned from her position. Ms. Tynan could not return to work as a result of her disabilities and was effectively terminated from her position with Vicinage 13.

The United States Court of Appeals Third Circuit has reversed a district court’s dismissal of a disability discrimination lawsuit brought by a registered nurse against her former employer. In the lawsuit captioned Aleka Ruggiero v. Mount Nittany Medical Center, the registered nurse claims that she was unlawfully terminated from her employment in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) for being terminated after refusing to get required vaccination because of her disability.

The plaintiff, Aleka Ruggiero, was employed as a registered nurse at Mount Nittany Medical Center before being terminated in July of 2015. According to the Complaint, Ms. Ruggiero suffers from severe anxiety and eosinophilic esophagitis, which limited her certain areas of life, including her ability to eat, sleep and engage in social communications. Despite her disabilities, Ms. Ruggiero was able to perform her job duties.

However, Ms. Ruggiero was required by the medical to receive a vaccination for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (the “TDAP”) vaccination as a result of her position as a nurse.  After not obtaining the vaccination prior to the deadline mandated by the hospital, Ms. Ruggiero provided a medical note from her doctor that medically exempted her from having to receive the vaccination. Mount Nittany Medical Center rejected the doctor’s note and requested further detail concerning Ms. Ruggiero’s medical inability to get the TDAP vaccination. After the treating doctor provided further information from the treating doctor, the medical center again rejected it as insufficient.  The medical center also rejected Ms. Ruggiero’s request to wear a surgical mask while at work as a different form of reasonable accommodation. After rejecting both reasonable accommodations requests, Ms. Ruggiero was eventually terminated after she missed the new imposed deadline to obtain the TDAP vaccination.

As reported by Asbury Park Press, a Holmdel High School student is claiming that school officials prohibited her from coming on to the stage to receive her high school diploma during last week’s graduation ceremony.  The incident has sparked outrage from some in the community concerning the school’s lack of planning and communication to accommodate the student’s ability to come onto the stage with her wheelchair.  To their credit, school officials  fully accepted blame and have apologized to the student for what it has referred to as a significant mistake.  This unfortunate incident is an example of the profound impact that a failure to provide necessary accommodations to a disabled person can have in his or her life experiences.

Individuals who suffer from disabilities face significant obstacles throughout their lives, which include often being excluded from certain activities and other life events.  Both federal and state laws, including the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination were enacted to prohibit certain forms of discrimination in employment, schools and in other public places of accommodation.  These anti-discrimination disability laws are designed to provide disabled employees the assistance they need in order to be employed, receive an education and be properly accommodated in the public domain.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination specifically identifies schools as a place of public accommodation.  A place of public accommodation may not discriminate against disabled persons and must provide reasonable accommodations unless it is shown that the requested or needed accommodation would impose an undue hardship.  If a disabled student needs or requests a reasonable accommodation, the school must initiate an interactive process to search and determine what appropriate reasonable accommodation is necessary. This interactive process requires the school to take some initiative and identify the potential reasonable accommodations that could be adopted to overcome the student’s precise limitations resulting from the disability. The law requires all parties to act in good faith to explore potential accommodations.  A school that obstructs or delays the interactive process or fails to communicate with the other party will be viewed as not acting in good faith.  When this occurs, the courts will attempt to isolate the cause of the breakdown and then assign responsibility.

The United States Supreme Court has declined review of a 7th Circuit Court of Appeal decision holding that the American’s with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) does not require employers to provide any reasonable accommodation of an extended medical leave for any more than twelve (12) weeks under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).

In  Severson v. Heartland Wood, Inc. No. 15-3754 (7th Cir. Sept. 20, 2017), the employee, Mr. Severson, went out on company approved FMLA leave for severe back pain in June 2013.  The day before he was supposed to return to work, he underwent back surgery necessitating an additional 2 or 3 months of medical leave to recover from the surgery. Mr. Severson, having exhausted his FMLA leave, asked his employer Heartland for the additional medical leave.  The company refused and terminated his employment.  Mr. Severson then sued his employer arguing that he was not being given the extra leave as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

The District Court sided with the employer on a summary judgement motion.  On appeal, the Seventh Circuit agreed, holding that the employer did not have to provide the additional leave other than the 12 weeks of medical leave available under the FMLA. Specifically, the Seventh stated that, “The ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.” The Court also reasoned that the goal of an ADA accommodation is to allow disabled employees to perform the essential functions of their jobs, not to excuse them from working and that “a multi month leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.”

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