Under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD), when an employee suffers injury due to their employer’s failure to accommodate his or her disability, the employer is liable for discrimination under LAD even when no direct economic harm or other form of adverse employment action was taken by the employer against the employee. Richter v. Oakland Board of Education, 2021 N.J. LEXIS 548, 2021 WL 2324982 (decided June 8, 2021). This is because the wrongful discriminatory act under LAD is the employer’s failure to perform its duty to accommodate an employee’s disability such as the one suffered by schoolteacher Mary Richter.
Plaintiff Mary Richter, a science teacher in the Oakland School District, is a type 1 diabetic and experienced a hypoglycemic event in a classroom, which resulted in severe, life-altering injuries. At the start of the 2012-2013 school year, Richter’s lunch was scheduled for 1:05 p.m. Richter believed such a late lunch would negatively impact her blood sugar levels and asked the defendant, the principal of the school, if the schedule could be changed to allow her to have lunch earlier to better maintain her diabetic condition. No change was made. Richter resorted to ingesting glucose tablets to maintain her blood sugar levels. An adjustment was made during the second marking period; however, in the third marking period, Richter was again scheduled for lunch at 1:05 p.m. In that third marking period, Richter suffered a hypoglycemic event in the class period before her scheduled lunch, seizing up, losing consciousness, and striking her head upon her fall, which resulted in extensive bleeding and injury. Richter was not terminated, demoted, or reassigned to another position, but filed an action against the school board under the LAD for failure to accommodate her disability. Prior to filing an action under the LAD, Richter filed a workers’ compensation claim for the work-related injuries and recovered for her medical bills and disability benefits.
Under the LAD, there is no explicit section addressing a reasonable accommodation or claim; however, New Jersey courts have consistently found the LAD requires employers to reasonably accommodate for an employee’s disability. Royster v. NJ State Police, 227 N.J. 482, 499 (2017). An employer is obligated to accommodate for an employee’s disability “unless it would impose an undue hardship on the operation on the business.” Potente, 187 N.J. at 110 (quoting N.J.A.C. 13:13-2.5(b)). To establish a failure-to-accommodate claim under the LAD, a plaintiff must establish that he or she (1) qualifies as an individual with a disability or is perceived as having a disability; (2) is qualified to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation; and (3) that the defendant failed to reasonably accommodate his or her disabilities. Royster, 227 N.J. at 500.
In holding that an adverse employment action is not required to proceed under a failure-to-accommodate claim, the Court made clear that this is not to be interpreted to mean the employer’s failure to accommodate is “the” adverse employment action, rather, it means that an adverse employment action is not a required element when an employee suffers an injury or an aggravation to a preexisting condition due to the failure-to-accommodate. Circumstances like Richter’s, where an employer’s inaction to an employee’s reasonable accommodation request results in some harm to the employee, constitute an omission that can give rise to a cause of action under the LAD.
The Richter Court then went on to discuss whether Richter’s failure-to-accommodate claim under the LAD is barred by the “exclusive remedy provision” of the Worker’s Compensation Act (WCA) because she recovered workers’ compensation benefits. That provision provides that if a compensable injury or death occurs under the WCA, a person is not liable on account of such injury or death for any act or omission, except for an intentional wrong. N.J.S.A. 34:15-8. These Legislative Acts, the LAD and WCA, operate complementary of one another in order to prevent double recovery. The understanding of this harmonious relationship was put forth in Schmidt v. Smith, holding that “there is no language in the LAD that mandates that claim made by employees against employers under it may only be brought under the Workers’ Compensation Act.” 294 N.J. Super. 569, 585 (App. Div. 1996), aff’d, 155 N.J. 44 (1998). Because Richter’s LAD claims focused on a failure to accommodate her diabetic condition and her WCA claim was advanced to remedy her financial burden from medical expenses and personal injury, these claims are not duplicative in nature. Each claim functioned to serve separate and distinct purposes. Therefore, Richter’s claims under the LAD and WCA are fully actionable and unencumbered by the exclusive remedy provision of the WCA.
If you believe your employer is failing or has failed to accommodate your disability in violation of the LAD, call the attorneys at Mashel Law (732) 536-6161 or fill out the contact form on this page for immediate help. At Mashel Law, LLC, located in Marlboro, New Jersey, we are dedicated to protecting the rights of employees.