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Articles Posted in Disability Discrimination

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 Superior Court in New Jersey’s Appellate Division has rejected an employer’s attempt to overturn a Somerset County jury verdict finding it liable for creating a hostile work environment based upon an employee’s disability.  In the case Joseph Iko v. County of Middlesex, the Appellate Division took specific note of the overwhelming testimony of the employee’s co-workers induced at trial corroborating the employee’s claims that he was the subject to frequent verbal taunts while at work concerning his diabetes and other related medical problems.  Based upon the trial evidence, the court found that the jury rightfully applied the facts of the ongoing harassment in finding that the employee was subjected to an unlawful hostile work environment and affirmed the verdict.  In doing so, the court rejected the employer’s argument that the employee had to provide expert testimony regarding the exact qualities of his or her disability in order to proceed with his claim of a hostile work environment.

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In this case, the plaintiff Mr. Iko was employed by the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Office from 1992 until his retirement in 2017. Mr. Iko was diagnosed with Type I Diabetes early in life and had to manage his symptoms throughout his entire adult life. At times the illness caused Mr. Iko to experience related medical issues that required him to take time off from work for surgical procedures. On one occasion, Mr. Iko had to undergo a pancreas transplant procedure, which was complicated by an aortic tear. Mr. Iko also experienced issues with his eyesight.

In addition to struggling with numerous medical issues, Mr. Iko faced severe and pervasive discrimination from his supervisors and coworkers on the basis of these disabilities. Several of Mr. Iko’s supervisors and coworkers referred to him as “Eye Lab”, “Half-Dead”, “Mr. Magoo”, “Stevie Wonder” and “Walking Dead”, among other such names. These nicknames were offensive to Mr. Iko, who repeatedly asked the harassers to stop. Mr. Iko’s supervisors also directed expletives and derogatory statements toward him related to his failing pancreas and eyesight. Mr. Iko attempted to lodge a formal complaint of harassment with the Sheriff, but his Captain told him that the Sheriff would not speak with him. Unable to address the ongoing discrimination and harassment internally, Mr. Iko felt he had no choice but to file a lawsuit against Middlesex County for disability discrimination.

In the recent case David F. Calabotta v. Phibro Animal Health Corp., et al., Smith Eibeler employment attorney Kathryn McClure, Esq., along with co-counsel, Mary Ann Sedey secured a substantial victory for employees, both inside and outside of New Jersey. Through its opinion, the Appellate Division reaffirmed New Jersey’s commitment to the eradication of workplace discrimination and the expansive reach of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

The case provides clarification to federal and state courts that it is inappropriate to impose a “bright-line rule” that the Law Against Discrimination only applies where an individual was employed within the State of New Jersey. Rather, a case-by-case analysis must be performed, with attention paid to the particular facts and circumstances at issue in each given case. Further, the Appellate Division again approved of a claim for associational discrimination under the Law Against Discrimination, despite the absence of explicit legislative approval of such a claim.

David Calabotta, the plaintiff in the Calabotta case, was not a member of a protected class himself, but rather brought a claim for associational discrimination under the Law Against Discrimination. David’s claim was premised on his relationship with his wife, who was diagnosed with breast cancer and thus was disabled within the meaning of the Law Against Discrimination. David brought his claim after his employer refused to consider him for a promotion and then subsequently terminated his employment after his wife became disabled. David alleged that his employer took those actions against him because of his association with his disabled wife.

The New Jersey Appellate Division ruled that the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination protects New Jersey employees from being fired for failing a drug test in connection with medical marijuana use. For employees who use medical marijuana, this provides some extra protections with respect to their employment. With approximately 45,000 registered patients in the medical marijuana program, and an additional 2,000 members joining every month, this decision has far-reaching implications as it will protect those with disabilities requiring use of medical marijuana.

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The Appellate Division suggested that, to the extent the use of medical marijuana is limited to non-working hours, it does not translate that an employee is unable to perform their job duties and responsibilities. The Appellate Division’s decision was based upon a lawsuit filed by 41-year old Justin Wild, a cancer patient, who was fired from his employment at a funeral home as a result of his medical marijuana use during non-working hours.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination prohibits employers from discriminating against disabled employees. The New Jersey state discrimination law requires that employees provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees who need assistance in performing the essential functions of his or her job. When an employee provides sufficient notice to his or her employer that they need assistance as a result of a disability, the employer is obligated to work with the employee in an interactive process to determine whether the requested or other accommodation can provided to the employee.  The employer must provide a reasonable accommodation, unless they can show that the accommodation would constitute an undue hardship on their business operations.

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.

An arbitration award supporting the termination of a Woodbridge teacher for repeated shoplifting has been affirmed by the New Jersey Superior Court and Appellate Division. In this case, Michele Schwab v. Woodbridge Township School District Board of Education, the terminated teacher argued that her shoplifting incidents were caused by a mental health disability and that she should not have been terminated for cause.  In rejecting this argument on appeal, the courts have issue another reminder of how difficult it is to overturn the decision of a private arbitrator.

During her sixteen years as an educator, Michele Schwab received awards such as “Educator of the Year” and was frequently described as a highly effective teacher. However, in February of 2015, Ms. Schwab engaged in criminal behavior by shoplifting from a store in the Woodbridge Center Mall. Ms. Schwab’s arrest and the charges against her were later dismissed. More than a year later, she again was charged with shoplifting and pled guilty to the charges brought against her after a video of the act surfaced on social media.  The video of her shoplifting that was seen by several of her fourth-grade students. Ms. Schward did not report her arrest to her employer, which the Board of Education claimed is a violation of a district policy.

When the school learned of the charges, Ms. Schwab was placed on suspension pending an investigation. Ms. Schwab’s employer additionally filed tenure charges against her, citing two counts of theft, failure to report her arrest, violation of district policies, and a pattern of unbecoming conduct. The charges were transmitted to an arbitrator for a hearing. After an investigation, the arbitrator decided that the Board of Education had established just cause to discipline Ms. Schwab, and that termination was an appropriate response to her charges.

The United States has been slowly progressing towards equity when it comes to employment policies that outlaw gender, disability, and other types of discrimination. Despite this advancement, there are a few areas that have shown reluctance to moving forward. One such industry is that of professional sports.  As a result of the nature of sports related occupations, issues such as disability, gender, and pregnancy discrimination have proven difficult to overcome. Athletes who are considering starting a family must contemplate the reactions of their sponsors, fans, and coaches, and they fear the cancelling of sponsorships as well as receiving less playing time from their coaches. Fortunately, a recent situation arose in women’s professional tennis that forced the United States Tennis Association to quickly consider changes to pregnancy and discrimination policies.

Arguably the greatest female tennis player in history, Serena Williams has won twenty-three Grand Slam singles titles since 1999, as well as four Olympic gold medals and seventy-two total career singles titles. Williams recently took a leave of absence from competing as she became pregnant and gave birth to her child, Olympia, in September of 2017. She also unfortunately experienced severe complications from this pregnancy that added to the physical strain of giving birth. Despite her record-breaking athletic history, she returned from pregnancy leave to find that she was unseeded in the French Open this year. In professional tennis, seeds are awarded to the highest ranked players of the year, and unseeded players encounter additional obstacles in the tournament, such as facing highly competitive players very early on in the tournament. For such a successful and powerful athlete as Williams, not being awarded a seeded spot following her pregnancy was not only disrespectful, but also viewed as discriminatory.

As a result of the backlash that the actions of the French Open have received, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) has announced that they plan to alter their seeding procedure in order to take into account additional factors that may have influenced an athlete’s ranking, which will include pregnancy and the complications that arise from the condition. Wimbledon already reserves and occasionally exercises the right to alter computer calculated seeding if they feel there are additional factors (such as pregnancy) that should be taken into consideration. In support of Wimbledon’s practice, the President and Chairwoman of USTA, Katrina Adams, explained that players should not be penalized for exercising their rights to start a family, and that the new US Open policy will help the sport to achieve greater equality and strike down discriminatory practices. Adams compared the French Open’s actions to the business environment, stating that forcing a player to return from maternity leave to a lower ranked position would be the same as having a business executive return to an entry level position. If this happened in any company in the United States, the employer would be guilty of pregnancy discrimination. Why is this not the case with the Women’s Tennis Association?

The United States Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit has affirmed a New Jersey District Court’s decision denying post-trial motion for judgment by Walmart after the jury entered a verdict against them in favor of a former employer.  The former employee, Barry Boles, claimed that he was unlawfully terminated by Walmart in retaliation for taking medical leave because of his disability.  The jury agreed, and found Walmart liable for back pay damages in the amount of $130,000, emotional distress damages in the amount of $10,000, punitive damages in the amount of $60,000 and attorney fees and costs in the amount of $200,000.  Walmart appealed the decision to the Court of Appeals.

In this case entitled, Barry Boles v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., the employee Mr. Boles had worked for Walmart for many years.  Mr. Boles first went out on a medical leave on May 8, 2011, after going to the emergency room for a large blister on his leg.  The large blister progressed into a five or six inch ulcer requiring Mr. Boles to take an extended medical leave of absence.  Walmart eventually placed Mr. Boles on medical leave pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act from June 22, 2011 through September 10, 2011.  During his FMLA leave, Mr. Boles’ treating doctor provided a certification that advised Walmart that Mr. Boles would not be able to return to work until October/November, 2011.

On October 23, 2011, Mr. Boles returned to work, but learned that he could not log onto his computer.  Mr. Boles attempted to reach out to the Market Human Resource Manager, Quawad McDonald, to find out his status, but his attempts were ignored by Mr. McDonald.  Finally, on or about October 29, 2011, Mr. Boles received a letter from Mr. McDonald advising him that he had been terminated as of October 25, 2011 for “failure to return” to work.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that an employee can show they suffered from a disability (as defined by the law) through the testimony of their treating physician.  This is a significant win for victims of disability discrimination, who often do not have the finances to pay for expensive medical expert testimony necessary for their case.

In the matter of Delvecchio v. Township of Bridgewater, the employee claimed she was unlawfully terminated on the basis of disability in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.  The employee was employed as a dispatcher for the Township of Bridgewater and developed inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS), panic attacks and anxiety during her employment, which she claimed required certain accommodations from her employer.   On September 16, 2009, the town terminated the employee’s employment, claiming neglect of duty and chronic/excessive absences, after the employer denied her requests for accommodations.  At trial, the court prohibited the employee from having her treating physician testify to her diagnosis and treatment.  As a result of the court’s adverse evidentiary ruling, the employee was unable to offer evidence showing she was disabled, which resulted in her losing her entire case.

The case was based upon disability discrimination which his prohibited under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.  The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination prohibits unlawful discrimination based on a disability unless the nature and extent of the disability reasonably precludes the performance of the job position.  An employee suing under the LAD must prove, inter alia, that he or she was disabled as defined in the act.  When the disability is not readily apparent, an employee must present expert medical evidence to assist the jury in understanding whether the condition alleged is a disability under the law

The New Jersey Appellate Division decided that a company’s mandatory program and policy implemented only against employees suffering from alcoholism is a violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. In A.D.P. v. ExxonMobil Research Company, ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company (Exxon) forced employees identified as recovering alcoholics to sign a contract that required only those employees to submit to mandatory clinical drug testing for two (2) years and monitoring for an additional three years. Other employees were not subject to drug or alcohol testing except for cause. In reversing the lower court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Exxon, the Appellate Division determined that the additional terms and conditions of employment imposed by Exxon based on Plaintiff’s disability of alcoholism constitutes a claim for disability discrimination.

Plaintiff began working for a predecessor company of Exxon in 1978 as a research technician. She continued with Exxon and worked for a total of twenty-nine years. Plaintiff was consistently ranked as a top performer and received eight promotions from 1983 through 2005 becoming a Senior Research Associate. After the death of Plaintiff’s husband in 2004, she suffered from depression and other medical conditions. In August of 2007, Plaintiff disclosed to a nurse at Exxon that she was an alcoholic and planned to check herself into an inpatient rehabilitation program in order to receive treatment for her alcohol dependency and depression. Plaintiff successfully completed inpatient rehabilitation at Carrier Clinic and outpatient treatment at Hunterdon Medical Center. Before Plaintiff was allowed to return to work at Exxon, she was required to sign an after-care contract pursuant to Exxon’s company-approved after-care program. The after-care contract identified Plaintiff as an employee recovering “from chemical dependency” and mandated she participate in the after care program, totally abstain from alcohol and drugs not prescribed by a physician, submit to clinical substance testing for a minimum of two years after completion of a Primary Treatment Program and be monitored for an additional three years. The mandatory testing was to be periodic and unannounced. The policy applied to Plaintiff also stated that an employee suffering from alcohol or drug dependency that refuses rehab, fails to respond to treatment, or fails to exhibit satisfactory work performance would be disciplined up to and including termination.

In fear of losing her job, Plaintiff signed the after-care contract and submitted to nine (9) random breathalyzer tests between October 29, 2007 and August 20, 2008. Exxon had no reasonable cause to believe Plaintiff had been drinking alcohol at work or was intoxicated when these breathalyzer tests were administered. The tests were administered solely because of the after-care contract Plaintiff was required to sign as a recovering alcoholic. On August 22, 2008, Plaintiff was forced to take yet another “random” breathalyzer test. This test produced blood alcohol concentration (BAC) readings of .047 and 0.43.3. These readings are well below the threshold BAC of 0.08 set by New Jersey law as driving under the influence. Plaintiff was terminated on August 26, 2008. Exxon articulated that the only reason Plaintiff was terminated was because she violated the after-care contract in having a positive test. Exxon confirmed that, “an employee’s status as an alcoholic is the lone trigger for requirements of total abstinence and random testing without cause.” The company also confirmed that Plaintiff performance had absolutely nothing to do with her termination and that even if she was in the top 1 percent of her group, she would still have been terminated for failing the test.

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