Is That Even Discrimination? New Jersey District Court Reiterates That Disabled Employees are not Immune to the Effects of Negative Job Performance
May 26, 2020 | By: Peter F. Berk, Esq., Peter F. Berk, Esq. and Gina M. Maturi (J.D. Candidate 2022)
On April 13, 2020, the District Court for the District of New Jersey granted the employer’s Motion for Summary Judgment and dismissed an employee’s claim of disability discrimination in the matter of Rooney v. NVR Inc. In Rooney, the District Court found that the employee was unable to establish a prima facie case for disability discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The Court determined that Plaintiff failed to demonstrate that a genuine factual dispute existed to suggest that Defendant terminated his employment based on his disability.
Christopher Rooney was employed with Defendant NVR Inc., a home manufacturing plant, from January 2, 2017, through the date of his termination on March 14, 2018. During his time with NVR, Rooney was transferred between departments twice, and from May 2017, until the date of his separation, Rooney was employed as a Loader and Bander in NVR’s loading pit. On May 31, 2017, Rooney injured his foot and was subsequently diagnosed with a sprained ACL. Rooney’s physician returned him to work with restrictions including wearing a splint, no climbing stairs, and no climbing ladders. However, his physician did not place any restrictions on the hours he could work. As a result, NVR placed Rooney on modified duty, no longer requiring him to climb into the pit. Furthermore, NVR instructed Rooney’s co-workers to assist Rooney with job tasks as needed.
Two months after Rooney’s initial foot injury he underwent knee surgery and was afforded a six month leave to recover. NVR also postponed Rooney’s six-month review until after he returned from leave. On January 18, 2018, Rooney returned to work with no restrictions and he received his postponed review covering January 2017 – June 2017. Rooney’s performance was rated “unacceptable” and NVR provided coaching with hopes Rooney’s performance would improve. However, Rooney’s performance was continuously marginal, and weekly reviews from January 16, 2018 through February 12, 2018, noted he exhibited issues with team work, limitations pertaining to tasks, and timeliness.
Shortly after Rooney’s return he suffered an umbilical hernia and his physician returned him to work with new restrictions, including limitations with lifting, pulling, and pushing up to 10 pounds for three hours a day. Rooney was otherwise permitted to work his entire shift. As before, NVR accommodated Rooney’s new restriction even going beyond Rooney’s physician’s referenced restrictions and modified Rooney’s job duties to include banding only.
During Rooney’s employment, NVR accommodated all of Rooney’s medical restrictions. Rooney never informed NVR or his supervisors that he was unable to work within his restrictions, nor did he complain that NVR was not accommodating the aforementioned restrictions. Regardless of accommodations and modifications, Rooney took it upon himself and worked outside of his restrictions. Nonetheless, Rooney displayed a poor attitude while working, often walked off the job, and did not get along with co-workers. Even after offering accommodations and coaching, Rooney’s performance reviews for the period of February 19, 2018 through March 5, 2018 were unacceptable or marginal. On March 13, 2018 Rooney received his last review with a score of unacceptable, and he was subsequently terminated on March 14, 2018.
In granting NVR’s motion, the Court recognized that Rooney’s performance pre-injury or accommodations was categorically marginal. The Court stated that its role is not to “question…whether the employer made the best decision, or even sound business decision; it is whether the real reason is discrimination.” Here, Rooney did not deny his poor performance and demonstrated consistencies in NVR’s overall evaluations of Rooney’s performance. NVR acted in good faith, offering Rooney ample opportunities to correct his performance deficiencies. However, Rooney chose not to take advantage of these opportunities. The Court also noted that Rooney’s termination was not causally related to his injury, because the termination stemmed from performance evaluations that occurred prior to the second injury. The Court rejected his failure to accommodate claim because Rooney had no evidence that he was not provided accommodations or that the accommodations were inadequate. The Court concluded that Rooney was improperly disputing the legitimacy of his evaluations while he was working within his existing accommodations not the sufficiency of the accommodations themselves.
The importance of documenting an employee’s performance, coupled with documentation of suggested employee improvement, cannot be understated. The employer in Rooney was able to defeat the disability claims of its thrice-injured employee because it effectively utilized repeated performance evaluations of Rooney that demonstrated multiple deficiencies not attributed to his disability. The Court rejected Rooney’s claims that additional light duty restrictions were essentially a segue to failure on the premise that NVR knew Rooney would not perform well in the new position(s). Effectively, the Court was unmoved by Rooney’s claim and stated that the employer is not obligated to acquiesce Rooney’s every demand, but rather the employer’s only duty is to cooperate with Rooney’s requested accommodations.
For more information regarding this decision and best practices for documenting accommodation requests and work performance to avoid disability claims, please contact John C. Petrella, Chair of the firm’s Employment Law & Litigation Practice Group via email or Peter F. Berk, Counsel in the firm’s Employment Law & Litigation Practice Group via email, or 973-533-0777.