Seyfarth Synopsis: The New Jersey Supreme Court held that a plaintiff need not plead an adverse employment action such as a termination or demotion to establish a prima facie case of failure to accommodate a disability under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”). An employer’s inaction, silence, or inadequate response to a reasonable accommodation request is sufficient. The Court also held that a plaintiff who recovers under New Jersey’s Workers’ Compensation Act for workplace injuries is not barred from suing under the LAD for damages related to workplace discrimination.
Is an adverse employment action a required element for a prima facie case of failure to accommodate under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”)? In Richter v. Oakland Board of Education, the New Jersey Supreme Court said, no. The New Jersey Supreme Court also held that receipt of benefits under the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act (“WCA”) does not bar a plaintiff from bringing claims under the LAD for damages and injuries related to workplace discrimination, and thus permits recovery without showing of an intentional wrong.
The plaintiff, Ms. Richter, was a middle school teacher for the Oakland Board of Education (the “Board”). She is a Type-1 diabetic. During the 2012-13 school year, Ms. Richter was scheduled for a 1:05 PM lunch break on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Believing that her blood sugar would run dangerously low on these days, Ms. Richter requested an earlier lunch break. Ms. Richter was told that the school would “look into it,” and ultimately told her that her schedule could not be changed. Rather, Ms. Richter was told to sit and down and have a snack if she did not feel well.
On March 5, 2013, Ms. Richter suffered a seizure and fainted in front of her students. This, of course, occurred on a day where she had a late lunch break. She hit her head on a lab table and the floor, causing excessive bleeding. Ms. Richter was hospitalized with serious injuries. Before this incident, Ms. Richter had not fainted while at work. She filed a claim under the WCA for her workplace injuries, and received over $28,700 for her medical expenses and temporary disability.
Two years later, on March 5, 2015, Ms. Richter brought a claim for failure to accommodate under the LAD. After two summary judgment motions and subsequent appeals, the matter came before the New Jersey Supreme Court.
No Adverse Action is Required for Failure to Accommodate Claims under the LAD
Under the LAD, employers have a duty to provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability unless it would impose an undue hardship on business operations. Here, Defendants argued that because Ms. Richter did not suffer an adverse employment action she could not sustain her claim. The Court highlighted two prior cases where it questioned whether an adverse action was necessary based on the LAD’s legislative intent. Similarly, the Court found that federal courts interpreting the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) have held that an adverse action is not an element of a failure to accommodate claim under the ADA or otherwise held that refusing to make a reasonable accommodation was itself an adverse employment action.
The Court decided to resolve this ambiguity in favor of the LAD’s legislative intent to eradicate discrimination in the workplace. The Court explained that the wrongful act in a failure to accommodate claim is the employer’s failure to perform its duty of providing a reasonable accommodation. To require an adverse employment action would allow an employer to escape liability by simply refusing to accommodate an employee’s disability but taking no further adverse action while the employee presumably suffered, the Court reasoned. This result would violate the LAD’s legislative intent. Accordingly, the Court held that an employer’s “inaction, silence, or inadequate response to a reasonable accommodation request is an omission that can give rise to a cause of action” under the LAD.
A Successful Claim under the WCA does not Bar a Plaintiff’s Claim under the LAD
The Court also sought to harmonize the LAD with the WCA. The WCA provides employees with prompt relief for medical expenses for workplace injuries. Under the WCA’s exclusive remedy provision, an employee who recovers for workplace injuries under the WCA cannot further recover for the same injuries at common law, unless the injuries resulted from an intentional act. Here, Defendants argued that because Ms. Richter’s claim for benefits under the WCA was successful, she could not also recover under the LAD for her injuries. Defendants further argued that their failure to accommodate her condition was unintentional, and her LAD claim could not proceed under the intentional wrong exception to the WCA. The Court found neither argument persuasive.
The Court explained that the LAD and the WCA serve dovetailing but different purposes. The LAD serves a broad remedial purpose to root out discrimination in the workplace, while the WCA compensates employees for medical expenses and personal injuries resulting from workplace injuries. Because the LAD was amended in 1990 to allow punitive damages and common law remedies for prevailing plaintiffs, the Court reasoned that the damages available under the LAD were to supplement other existing remedies under the WCA. As a result, the Court held that the laws could coexist and permit recovery under both for different corresponding injuries. Here, the Court explained that Ms. Richter’s pursuit of a failure to accommodate claim for a pre-existing disability “is not at cross purposes with the WCA’s prompt and sure remedies for medical expenses and ‘personal injury.’” Accordingly, the Court held that the WCA’s exclusive remedy provision did not attach to Ms. Richter’s LAD claim regardless of whether defendants acted intentionally.
The Court’s decision lowers the bar for failure to accommodate claims by removing a potential defense based on a plaintiff’s failure to plead an adverse employment action. The Court specifically held that an employer’s “inaction, silence, or inadequate response to a reasonable accommodation request” is enough to support a failure to accommodate claim under the LAD. The Court’s decision highlights the importance of engaging in an interactive dialogue whenever employers are faced with an employee’s reasonable accommodation request. Additionally, employers may not use the WCA as a bar to recovery under the LAD if discrimination played a part in the underlying workplace injury.