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New Jersey Appellate Court Affirms Medical Leave Reasonable Accommodation Verdict

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.

While she was out on medical leave for her work-related injuries, Pritchett began to suffer from additional symptoms unrelated to her workplace injury. Specifically, she began to feel discomfort and numbness in her lower body and hands, which led her to receive an MRI that resulted in a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. Although Pritchett’s doctor advised her and her employer that her work-related injuries no longer prevented her from carrying out her job duties, he also informed them that she was still unable to return to work due to Pritchett’s newly diagnosed disability. The doctor gave a prognosis date of November 1, 2011 as the date on which Pritchett could potentially return to work, and so Pritchett requested an extension of her leave through that date in accordance with her physician’s recommendation.

Pritchett’s Captain, Kelly Gibson, denied the request. When Gibson informed the Human Resources Department (HR) of the denial, HR escalated the denial to HR supervisor Lisa Quinto. Quinto emailed Gibson to suggesting that  the request be approved and that Pritchett also be put notice that no additional leave requests would be granted, such that JCC could reject any future request for leave. Captain Gibson rejected HR’s recommendation and remained firm in denying Pritchett’s request. Quinto referred the matter to her HR supervisor Lisa Bell, who reached out to Felix Mickens, Executive Director of Operations for the JJC and its second in command. Bell emailed Mickens, again suggesting that approval of the November 1, 2011 leave extension would provide the JJC with ammunition to remove Pritchett from her position should additional leave become necessary in the future. The next day, Captain Gibson approved Pritchett’s leave request.

Bell advised Pritchett that her leave was approved through November 1, 2011 despite the exhaustion of her FMLA entitlement in August. Bell also advised Pritchett that if she couldn’t return to work after November 1, she would either have to resign or retire. If she failed to return, resign or retire, she would be considered to have abandoned her position.

After a series of tests, Pritchett was officially diagnosed with MS, and her neurologist informed the JJC that she would be able to return to work on March 1, 2012. Pritchett requested additional leave until that date. Her request was denied. Pritchett requested the denial and underlying reasoning in writing, and this request was denied as well.

Pritchett wrote to Bell in HR on November 1, 2011, the last day of her approved leave, and advised the JJC that she was neither retiring nor resigning from her position and due to her need to seek treatment for her medical disability, she was also not returning to work on November 2. She asked HR if she could seek donated sick time or return to light duty – both of which were rejected. None of Pritchett’s requests were ever forwarded to the JJC’s Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) Coordinator for review or guidance, contrary to the JJC’s policy.

Pritchett’s union representatives informed her that if she didn’t apply for disability retirement, Mickens would file disciplinary action against her for abandonment of her position. Believing she was out of options, Pritchett applied for disability retirement with the Division of Pensions and Benefits (the Division). The Division approved her application for disability retirement on July 16, 2012.

After the denial of Pritchett’s request for leave through March 1, 2012, the JJC’s ADA Coordinator learned of her requests and her application for disability retirement. He advised Pritchett to file a complaint with the EEO. Pritchett filed an EEO complaint in January 2012, claiming that the JJC failed to accommodate her and instead forced her to retire. In the complaint, she sought reinstatement and back wages. The EEO investigation revealed that unpaid leaves like the ones requested by Pritchett were allowed but subject to the discretion of the JJC, and that other corrections officers had been approved for such leaves. The investigation report concluded that Pritchett’s leave requests should have been forwarded to the ADA coordinator and the JJC should have explored other positions for Pritchett. The determination was that the JJC’s failure to engage in an interactive process with Pritchett resulted in a violation of the State Anti-Discrimination Policy, but Pritchett’s request for reinstatement was rendered moot by her retirement.

At trial, the jury returned a verdict in Pritchett’s favor, finding that the JJC had violated the LAD by failing to provide a reasonable accommodation in the form of unpaid medical leave through March 1, 2012. The jury awarded her $1.8 million in economic and emotional distress damages, and $10 million in punitive damages.

On cross-appeal, the Appellate Division remanded on the amount of punitive damages. Also before the Court was the issue of whether or not Pritchett’s March 1, 2012 leave request was a type of accommodation permitted under LAD, and if it was, was it of such an indefinite nature as to render it unreasonable. The Court, noting that whether a particular accommodation is reasonable must be determined on a case by case basis, found that the LAD expressly includes “leaves of absence” as potential reasonable accommodations. Additionally, the Court noted that on its face, the leave request was not indefinite even though there was no guarantee that Pritchett would have been able to return to work on March 1, 2012. Thus, there was no error in submitting the question of reasonable accommodation to the jury.

Also before the Court was a question of expert testimony. Namely, the JJC argued that Pritchett failed to give sufficient evidence of her ability to perform her basic job functions as of March 1, 2012. The JJC argued that she should have been required to offer testimony from a medical expert as to her physical condition on and after that date. The Court disagreed, finding that although an expert witness should tell the jury whether or not someone with MS could potentially perform the functions of a senior corrections officer, Pritchett’s own testimony regarding her physical condition was sufficient for the jury to consider in determining whether she specifically could have resumed her position. The Court noted that “there is no general rule or policy requiring expert testimony as to the LAD requirement that a plaintiff be capable of performing the essential functions of his or her job”..

Although the Appellate Division remanded on the issue of the amount of punitive damages, Pritchett prevailed and laid a path for all workers in New Jersey to be granted necessary medical leave in order to seek treatment for disabilities without fear of disciplinary action. With the help of this decision, New Jersey law continues to provide its employees with significant legal protections against employers who try to force workers out of their positions when they are faced with disabilities requiring reasonable accommodations.

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