Articles Posted in Unlawful Termination

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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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The federal Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601-2654 and New Jersey Family Leave Act (“NJFLA”) N.J.S.A. 34:11B-1 et. seq. permits employees to take 12 weeks of protected unpaid leave when they or their immediate family suffer a serious medical condition or for a new born child. This allows the employee to cope and recuperate from such circumstances. Relatedly, an employer cannot punish an employee for taking FMLA or NJFLA leave. Indeed, the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit recently ruled that an employee can use his medical leave time off as vacation time, and cannot be fired for doing so, so long as taking such time off does not directly violate an express company policy. In Jones v. Gulf Coast Health Care of Delaware, LLC, 854 F.3d 1261 (11thCir. 2017), the 11th Circuit remanded to the district court to decide whether an employer had subjected his employee to unlawful retaliation by firing him when he did not use his time off within the “spirit” of medical leave – to rehabilitate and recover – and instead vacationed.

In Jones, the employer, Accentia, granted plaintiff Rodney Jones (“Jones”), their Activities Director, 12 weeks of FMLA leave so that he could undergo rotator cuff surgery and fully recover. However, when Jones was scheduled to return, his doctor reported that Jones could not resume physical activity until February 1, 2015. Despite his doctor’s recommendations and his own physical limitations, Jones still wished to return to his job at the end of his FMLA leave. Jones understood his doctor’s report to simply mean that he needed to continue physical therapy, not that he was prohibited from working entirely. Therefore, he asked his supervisor to allow him to return to work on light duty. His requested was denied. In fact, Jones was told he would not be permitted to return to work unless he underwent and passed a fitness-for-duty exam. Because his supervisor was adamant that Jones could not return to work on light duty, Jones did not ask his doctor for a light-duty certification. Jones instead requested additional time off and was granted another 30 days of non-FMLA medical leave to complete his physical therapy.

During the additional leave time, Jones twice visited the Busch Gardens theme park in Tampa Bay, Florida where he spent time walking around and taking pictures of the park’s Christmas decorations. Jones also visited his family in the Caribbean for three days. He posted photos from these trips on his Facebook page, including pictures of himself on the beach, posing by a boat wreck, and in the ocean. When Jones returned to work, his supervisor confronted him with the vacation photos and informed him that “corporate” believed, based on these Facebook posts, Jones had been well enough to return to work without additional leave. Hence, Jones was suspended, and then his employment terminated following an investigation by the company.

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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.

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Your company is sponsoring a political fundraising luncheon for Donald Trump during work hours and makes clear your attendance is expected.  Must you attend?  How about if your boss insists that all members of the IT team he heads, and to which you are a member, must attend and participate in a prayer breakfast meeting where the pastor from his church will be speaking.  If you refuse to go, are you protected your boss suffer retaliate against you later?  The answer to these questions are found in the New Jersey Worker Freedom from Employer Intimidation Act (“the Act”).

The Act, which was signed into law in 2006, forbids employers from requiring employees to attend any employer-sponsored meetings or participate in any communications with an employer and the employer’s agents or representatives where the purpose of the get-together is to hear about the employer’s opinion(s) about religious or political matters. The Act specifically prohibits an employer and its agents and representatives from discharging, disciplining or otherwise penalizing any employee because the employee in good faith reports a violation or suspected violation of the Act.

Any employee who suffers retaliation in violation of the Act may bring a private civil action against the offending employer and its cohorts. The remedies under the Act include:

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Many of us would like to believe that if we are the victims of discrimination in the workplace, we will be given the opportunity to one day prove that case before a jury of our peers. Unfortunately, sometimes a judge will step in and strip a deserving litigant of that opportunity. This is what recently happened to retired State Police Trooper Robert Repsha in a discrimination case filed in the New Jersey Superior Court entitled Robert Repsha v. New Jersey State Police, Docket No. A-0414-14T3 (App. Div. Mar. 24, 2016).

Trooper Repsha, a Caucasian, now-retired state trooper, filed a lawsuit against his former employer, the New Jersey State Police (NJSP), alleging he was repeatedly passed over for promotions during the period of 2010-2012 in retaliation for having filed a hostile work environment complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) against an African-American superior officer. Trooper Repsha also alleged that after he suffered a heart attack in October of 2010, the NJSP failed to accommodate him upon his return to work and he was otherwise retaliated against because he sought an accommodation.

No juror ever had the opportunity to hear these allegations of discrimination because a motion judge determined that, among other things, the promotions denied Trooper Repsha after 2010 were “too distant in time” from the 2006 EEOC complaint to be considered actionable. On March 24, 2016, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division issued an opinion agreeing with the motion judge noting, “[t]he mere fact that adverse employment action occurs after the alleged protected activity is not alone sufficient to present or suggest a causal link between the two events.” Accordingly, no jury will never hear Trooper Repsha’s story of discrimination and retaliation.