Court of Appeals Allows Disabled Employee To Pursue ADA Wrongful Termination Claims

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.

The lawsuit alleges three claims under the ADA, which include (1) failure to provide a reasonable accommodation; (2) disability discrimination; and (3) unlawful retaliation.  The medical center’s employment lawyers argued that the plaintiff had not sufficiently pled facts to support these claims and therefore the case should be dismissed.  The district court agreed and dismissed all of the ADA claims.  The plaintiff’s employment lawyers then appealed the decision to the appellate court.

In reversing the trial court’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit, the 3rdCircuit emphasized that the ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for an employee’s disability and that this involves a process in which employers must make a good faith effort to consider possible accommodations.  According the court, the fact that the medical center refused to exempt her from the vaccination requirement and or provide permission to wear a mask without making any alternative suggestions was enough to sustain a claim for failure to reasonable accommodate the employee’s disability.  The court further found that Ms. Ruggiero adequately pled a claim of disability discrimination because of the allegation that other employees were provided exemptions to getting the vaccination and/or were able to wear a mask at work. Finally, the Court found that Ms. Ruggiero engaged in protected activity by requesting reasonable accommodations and adequately raised facts showing a causal connection of her requests for reasonable accommodations to her termination.

The disability discrimination lawsuit will now move on into the discovery stage of the lawsuit before the trial will be take place.  In the meantime, this case is a good reminder to employees who suffer from disabilities and all employers of the need to engage with one another in considering various reasonable accommodations in good faith before making any final decisions concerning the employment.  Employers will continue to be found liable under the ADA or other state law such as the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination when they fail to engage in an interactive process with a disabled employee before terminating their employee in response to a request for a reasonable accommodation.

If you have are suffering from a form of workplace disability discrimination or are need of a reasonable accommodation that your employer refuses to provide, please contact our office to speak to one of our New Jersey disability discrimination attorneys to discuss the specific facts and circumstances of your workplace discrimination issue.  Our employment law office is conveniently located in Holmdel, Monmouth County at the Bell Works building off Exit 114 of the Garden State Parkway.