New Jersey Appellate Division Rules that Nurse’s Termination Based On Her Physical Limitations Could Violate The NJLAD

09.03.2015

On August 28, 2015, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division in Grande v. Saint Clare’s Health System, reversed the decision of the trial court granting summary judgment to the defendant finding that plaintiff’s termination based on her physical limitations in performing her core job duties could violate the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”).  The plaintiff, who worked at Saint Clare’s Health System as a nurse from 2000 through 2010, sustained multiple work-related injuries over the course of her employment while performing her regular job duties.  After her third injury, plaintiff sought leave pursuant to the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).  Plaintiff returned to work on light duty, but was unable to perform the tasks assigned to her on light duty for a full shift, and returned home after four hours.  Plaintiff took another leave, and then returned to work on sedentary duty.  Thereafter, she was cleared to return to work on full active duty.  Her return to work date, however, was postponed pending the results of a “functional capacity evaluation test.”  The plaintiff’s physician authorized her to return to work with the restrictions indicated in the test results.  Plaintiff reported to work, but was informed that her employment had been terminated due to the test results.  The test results indicated that the plaintiff would require specific restrictions, which defendant contended it was unable to accommodate.  Following her termination, the plaintiff met with her physician, who authorized her to return to work with no restrictions.  The defendant, however, refused to rescind the plaintiff’s termination. Plaintiff thereafter filed a two-count complaint against Saint Clare’s alleging termination due to disability and/or perceived of disability in violation of the NJLAD.  Under the NJLAD, an employer is prohibited from dismissing a handicapped employee, or an individual perceived to be handicapped, unless the disability “reasonably precludes the performance of the particular employment.”  N.J.S.A. 10:5-4.1.  The Law Division granted defendant’s motion for summary judgement finding that plaintiff’s termination based on her physical limitations in performing her core job duties created a substantial risk of serious injury to herself, her patients, or fellow employees and thus did not violate the NJLAD.

On appeal, the Appellate Division found that the Law Division erred in granting summary judgement and incorrectly minimized the importance of evidence that a rational jury could find to support the unlawful discrimination due to perceived disability claim.  Using the standard set forth by the New Jersey Supreme Court in Jansen v. Food Circus Supermarkets, Inc., 110 N.J. 363 (1988), the Appellate Division agreed with the plaintiff that the defendant was unable to show with a reasonable degree of certainty, that she was unable to perform “the core duties of her job as a nurse without posing a serious threat of injury to herself, or to the health and safety of her patients and fellow employees.”  The Appellate Division found that plaintiff produced competent evidence that she had been medically cleared to return to work, and that she was fully capable of discharging her duties and performing her job.  On the other hand, the defendant had presented evidence, the test results, which allegedly refuted the plaintiff’s claim.  The Appellate Division found that a rational jury could support plaintiff's case of unlawful discrimination due to her perceived physical disability and thus reversed the granting of summary judgment to the defendant.

The dissent, however, found that because the plaintiff had been injured multiple times while performing her job duties, the hospital reasonably and lawfully determined that retaining plaintiff was not safe for her or for patients.  The dissent also found that the majority’s decision would allow a jury to second-guess the employer’s decision about the safety needs of its employees and patients despite the established history of the plaintiff’s injuries caused by her job duties.

For more information regarding this decision and best practices with regard to leaves of absence and accommodations in the workplace, please contact John C. Petrella, Director of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group at jpetrella@genovaburns.com or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Director of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@genovaburns.com or 973-533-0777.

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