By: Peter F. Berk, Gina M. Maturi (J.D. Candidate 2022)
On December 6, 2019, the New Jersey Appellate Division in V. L. v. Hunterdon Healthcare et. al., reversed and remanded a trial court’s order dismissing an employee’s claims of disability discrimination and retaliatory discharge under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). The Appellate Division concluded there were issues of material fact as to whether the employer initiated the interactive process in good faith to find a reasonable accommodation for the employee. In so concluding, the Appellate Division’s decision serves as a valuable and necessary reminder to employers of the common ways that employees use to show that an employer did not engage in the interactive process in good faith.
V.L. was employed by Hunterdon Healthcare LLC and Hunterdon Medical Center (collectively, “Hunterdon”) for almost twenty years. During her tenure, V.L. was promoted on multiple occasions and received excellent performance evaluations. V.L. had a long-standing history of battling depression and anxiety that pre-dated her employment with Hunterdon. Due to her condition, V.L. requested various leaves and accommodations over the course of her employment, including working from home, which Hunterdon approved.
In December 2014, V.L. requested a 12 week medical leave. Prior to her return, V.L. requested an accommodation to work from home. Hunterdon declined to extend such an accommodation to V.L., contending that the essential functions of the job required V.L.’s presence in the office.
Although Hunterdon declined to extend the work from home accommodation, V.L. conveyed she intended to return to work. For the remainder of her leave, the parties exchanged emails regarding her impending medical clearance. V.L.’s physician thereafter was prepared to clear V.L. to return to work. However, due to miscommunications, V.L.’s paperwork was delayed.
Following V.L.’s visit to her physician, V.L. visited Hunterdon’s Physician Assistant (PA) with no expertise in mental health, who opined that she was not emotionally ready to return to work. Hunterdon maintained that the recommendations set forth by her physician and the PA were inconsistent. Specifically, V.L.’s physician advised that she was ready to return to work if she was permitted to work from home for part of the work week. However, the PA did not indicate this on V.L.’s return to work form, and instead noted that V.L.’s accommodation should be discussed with her supervisor. Instead of discussing the accommodation with her supervisor, V.L.’s employment was terminated two days later.
Subsequent to her termination, V.L. filed a lawsuit alleging disability discrimination, failure to accommodate, and retaliatory discharge in violation of the NJLAD. Hunterdon filed a motion for summary judgment seeking to dismiss all of V.L.’s claims.
The Trial Court's Decision
The trial court granted Hunterdon’s summary judgment motion dismissing V.L. s’ claims under the NJLAD. Hunterdon argued that V.L. was unable to prove all four of the required elements for a NJLAD claim, specifically that V.L. was able to perform her duties with or without an accommodation. The judge determined that, despite conflict medical evidence it was “establish[ed] that she really wasn’t medically able to do the job…or she was unwilling…[and]…the employer was justified in doing what it did.” Thus, the trial court concluded that “no reasonable jury could conclude that V.L.’s employer failed to attempt to reasonably accommodate V.L.’s disability.”
The Appellate Division Reverses
The Appellate Division reversed and remanded the trial court’s decision finding that there were questions of material fact precluding dismissal of V.L.’s claims. The Appellate Division noted multiple instances wherein a jury may conclude that the employer failed to engage in the interactive process in good faith, including:
- During V.L.’s leave of absence, her supervisor e-mailed his supervisor asking when V.L. will officially be severed;
- V.L.’s second level supervisor directed the PA to challenge her physician’s decision that she could return to work with an accommodation;
- Before meeting with V.L., the PA was told that a good candidate had been identified to fill V.L.’s position;
- The PA testified that V.L. was the only employee she denied a return to work to out of approximately 100 return to work evaluations she completed over an eight-year period;
- Despite communicating with V.L. using her personal e-mail, Hunterdon sent V.L. an e-mail to her work e-mail indicating a return-to-work deadline. This email was not resent to her personal e-mail until the day before the deadline, which was not extended;
- Although V.L.’s physician completed the return to work form in the manner requested by Hunterdon, including a proposed work from home accommodation, the PA still required that it be reviewed with V.L.’s supervisor (V.L.'s supervisor approved previous accommodations several years earlier); and
- V.L.’s supervisor agreed to consider the accommodations identified in the return to work form, only to terminate V.L. the next day because the PA reported that V.L. stated that she was not ready to return to work; V.L. later denied ever making this statement.
The Appellate Division also concluded that the trial court improperly disregarded issues of fact created by V.L.’s doctor and the PA, when they issued conflicting opinions as to V.L.’s return to work with a reasonable accommodation.
This serves as an important reminder that employers must be prudent and deliberate when engaging in the interactive process with employees. Supervisors are reminded not to discuss employee’s medical conditions and to forego communications regarding termination of an employee before completion of the interactive process. Supervisors are also cautioned to refrain from influencing any medical opinion of the provider responsible for deciding an employee’s return to work. The interactive process is a test of patience for an employer that cannot be rushed without serious risk of litigation.
For more information regarding this decision and best practices for managing accommodations and leaves of absence in accordance with local, state and federal employment laws, please contact Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Counseling & Compliance Practice Group, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 973-533-0777.