Articles Posted in Disability Discrimination

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Under the federal American with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”), a disabled employee is entitled to be reasonably accommodated by their employer so long as to do so does not create an undue hardship for the employer or coworkers. However, for an employee to be entitled to a reasonable accommodation for a disability, the ADA and LAD requires that the disabled employee can perform the essential functions of their job with or without an accommodation. Put differently, an employer is not required to accommodate an employee who cannot perform his or her essential job functions even with an accommodation. Hennessey v. Winslow Township, 368 N.J. Super. 443, 452 (App. Div. 2004), aff’d, 183 N.J. 593 (2005).

What constitutes an “essential function” requires a very fact specific determination. To do so, the U.S. Equal Employment Commission suggests the following factors be considered: (1) the employer’s job descriptions; (2) whether the position exists to perform that function specifically; (3) the experience of employees who actually hold that position; (4) the time spent performing the function; (5) the consequences of not performing the function; (6) whether other employees are available to perform the function, and; (7) the degree of expertise or skill required to perform the function. However,when looking at the job description factor, the New Jersey Supreme Court in Grande v. Saint Clare’s Health Sys., Nos. A-67, 076606, 2017 N.J. LEXIS 746, at *1 (decided July 12, 2017) recently reaffirmed that an employer cannot arbitrarily define which requirements are “essential” job functions.

Maryanne Grande (“Grande”) was a Registered Nurse who suffered repeated injuries while working at Saint Clare’s causing damage to her shoulders and neck. Following her last medical leave, Grande was cleared by her doctor to return to full-duty. However, before permitting her to do so, Saint Clare’s required Grande to undergo and pass a functional capacity evaluation (an FCE). The FCE concluded that Grande was fit to perform medium category work (occasional lift and work up to 50 lbs.) with certain job alterations to avoid prolonged or repetitive neck movements, and required assistance when performing patient transfers or guarding patients or handling loads greater than 50 pounds. Thereafter, Saint Clare’s informed Grande that they were terminating her employment because they felt she had limitations which prevented her from safely doing her job.

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Victims of disability discrimination no longer need to shoulder the burden and high expense of retaining a pricey medical expert to come to court to render an opinion establishing their physical, mental and/or emotional disability in question; they can now use their treating doctor for this purpose. So said our New Jersey Supreme Court in a recently decided case entitled Delvecchio v. Township of Bridgewater, — N.J. —, 2016 N.J. LEXIS 335 (2016) where the Court affirmed the reversal of a jury’s verdict of no cause of action against a former dispatcher of the Township of Bridgewater Police Department (the “Bridgewater PD”).

In 2003, Mrs. Delvecchio developed inflammatory bowel syndrome (“IBS”), and began treatment with Dr. Gary Ciambotti (Ciambotti), a gastroenterologist. Dr. Ciambotti wrote to plaintiff’s supervisors and stated that her symptoms were under control as long as she worked regular daytime hours, but would be exacerbated by an assignment to the midnight shift. After repeatedly declining assignments to the midnight shift, Mrs. Delvecchio was asked to resign from her position. She then accepted a lower-paying job as a records clerk for the Township. Plaintiff used more than her allotted sick days, and the Township terminated her employment.

Thereafter, Mrs. Delvecchio filed a New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (the “LAD”) disability discrimination complaint against the Township, Bridgewater PD and individual defendants. She contended, among other claims, that her IBS constituted a disability for purposes of LAD and that defendants failed to provide a reasonable accommodation for that disability when they set the schedule for her work as a police dispatcher. Mrs. Delvecchio disclosed in pretrial discovery that she intended to present the testimony of Dr. Ciambotti to establish his diagnosis of IBS. However, the trial court barred the testimony of Dr. Ciambotti on the grounds that he had not been retained and identified by plaintiff in pretrial discovery as an expert witness and had not prepared an expert report containing his findings. Without the testimony of a physician establishing the nature and extent of her disability, the jury was left with no choice but to conclude that Mrs. Delvecchio had failed to establish that she had a disability preventing her from working midnight shifts.