Can A Workers’ Compensation Claim Block Your Ability to Accuse Your Employer of Discrimination?

Under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities unless they can show that doing so would impose a hardship on their business operations. Failure to do so represents a violation of the law. But what happens when the employee is injured and collects Workers’ Compensation as a result of that failure to accommodate?

For years, our firm has been advocating on behalf of employees who’ve found themselves in this exact position: a woman with vocal cord problems who suffered the permanent loss of her voice because her employer refused to take her off the phones; another who suffered permanent back injuries when his employer refused to honor a light duty lifting restriction; and yet another who fell down the stairs and suffered injuries after her employer refused to allow her use of an elevator. In these cases, the we brought action under the NJLAD. In Richter v. Oakland Bd. Of Education, the New Jersey Supreme Court, for the first time, will be reviewing the question as to whether the workers compensation law bars an employee who is physically injured due to her employer’s discrimination from bringing a separate suit under the NJLAD.

In 2013, a teacher with Type 1 diabetes suffered a hypoglycemic event in school and suffered a significant, debilitating injury. Mary Richter had tried to avert the incident by requesting an accommodation from the Oakland Board of Education, but they refused to cooperate. Ms. Richter suffered significant physical damages as a result of the school’s refusal to accommodate her disability, suffering a diabetic episode that caused her to faint and strike her head so badly that she lost her sense of taste and smell. She suffered from insomnia, extensive pain, post-concussion syndrome, severe emotional distress and vertigo, in addition to acute trauma to her face and teeth. She filed a workers’ compensation claim and received significant compensation including $77,000 for permanent injuries and $19,000 for medical bills, and then filed a claim accusing the School Board of disability discrimination in violation of New Jersey’s Law against discrimination.

Her initial claim and request for consideration were denied by a New Jersey trial court on the basis that she could not show an adverse employment action (such as being fired or demoted) as required by the NJLAD. She continued seeking justice and the Supreme Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division agreed with her, reversing the lower court’s decision and allowing her pursuit of justice to move forward, but in doing so they raised two questions: First, is an employee alleging discrimination for failure to accommodate a disability required to show an adverse employment action? And secondary to that, is the employee’s claim barred by the exclusive remedy provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act?

The Supreme Court will decide first whether the failure to accommodate Ms. Richter was, in itself, an adverse action, or whether a victim of failure to accommodate must also prove a tangible job action, such as demotion, suspension or termination. The Court will also give clarity as to the extent that employees can bring personal actions under the NJLAD. We will be watching this case closely and will report when the Supreme Court issues this important decision.

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