In Cattuna v. Sara Lee, Corp., 2010 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2137 (App. Div. August 27, 2010), the New Jersey Appellate Division held that a salesperson who suffered incapacitating panic attacks when traveling could not maintain a failure to accommodate claim against his employer where he could not identify a reasonable accommodation that would enable him to perform the essential functions of his job. Plaintiff Steven Cattuna was a sales representative for Sara Lee who lived in New Jersey but whose assigned sales territory covered lower Manhattan. Beginning in August 2006, he began suffering panic attacks whenever he traveled in tunnels or bridges, took public transportation or was present in crowded places. He was diagnosed with agoraphobia, situational panic attacks and anxiety and took medical leaves of absence.  

After Cattuna exhausted his available leave and was still unable to work, Sara Lee hired a replacement to fill his position but invited him to contact the company when he became able to work. One month later, Cattuna contacted Sara Lee about returning to work in a capacity that would not trigger his panic attacks. Sara Lee asked Cattuna to specify the positions in which he was interested and the accommodations he would require. Cattuna did not respond.

Instead, he filed a lawsuit asserting that Sara Lee had violated New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. § 10:5-1 et seq. (the "LAD"), by failing to accommodate his disability. The trial court granted Sara Lee's motion for summary judgment, holding that Cattuna could not have performed his job with or without a reasonable accommodation. The Appellate Division affirmed.

According to the Appellate Division, to state a claim under the LAD, Cattuna was required to demonstrate that he: (1) was disabled within the meaning of the LAD; (2) was qualified to perform the essential functions of the position with or without reasonable accommodation; and (3) experienced an adverse employment action because of his disability.

The Court explained that before deciding that an employee cannot perform the essential functions of a job, an employer must engage in the "interactive process." To show good faith, the employer should meet with the employee, request information about the employee's condition and the employee's limitations, ask the employee what accommodations he or she wants and discuss potential alternatives if the employee's requests are too burdensome. According to the Court, both parties are obligated to engage in the interactive process; it is not a "one-way street."

Applying the law to the facts of the case, the Court determined that Sara Lee was entitled to summary judgment, because "traveling to New York on a daily basis was an essential function of Cattuna's job," yet Cattuna could not do it. Nor did Cattuna demonstrate the existence of some reasonable accommodation that would enable him to perform his job. Finally, the Court concluded that Sara Lee had legitimate grounds to terminate Cattuna's employment. Namely, Cattuna's sales territory was not meeting its sales goals and Sara Lee was losing business because he was not able to perform his job duties.

Bottom Line

To avoid liability under the LAD, an employer must engage in the interactive process with a disabled employee before it can determine whether the employee's disability precludes performance of the employee's essential job functions with or without reasonable accommodation. An employer is not obligated, however, to maintain the employment of an employee who, even with a reasonable accommodation, simply cannot perform the essential functions of the job.