A unanimous opinion from the New Jersey Supreme Court has strongly favored the rights of injured New Jersey workers to both receive workers’ compensation benefits and to file personal injuries claims against their employer under the rules of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The decision closes a long chapter for an injured New Jersey teacher while simultaneously putting to rest two long-standing questions regarding the state’s robust anti-discrimination law.
The case before the court was Mary Richter v. Oakland Board of Education. It was filed against the school district by a teacher who suffered serious and permanent life-altering injuries following a hypoglycemic event in her classroom. Ms. Richter’s claim seeking compensation for her injuries was filed under the Law Against Discrimination (LAD). In response to her assertion that the district’s failure to accommodate her pre-existing disability had led to her injury, the Board of Education responded by arguing that she was barred from filing the claim under the LAD because workers’ compensation is an exclusive remedy, and that she was barred from a claim under the LAD because she had suffered no adverse employment action. After multiple hearings by the Appellate Division, the case arrived at the Supreme Court, which sided against the Board of Education and with Ms. Richter on both counts. In doing so, the court clarified the intent of the NJLAD, confirming that workers injured as a result of discriminatory action by their employers have robust rights in their pursuit of justice.
Looking at each of the separate issues, the Court first addressed whether a failure-to-accommodate claim under the Law Against Discrimination requires that an adverse employment action be demonstrated. The justices noted that though an adverse consequence is generally expected, there may be situations where no such consequence can be identified, clarifying that the wrongful act is the “employer’s failure to perform its duty, not a further adverse employment action that the employee must suffer.”
With reference to whether a failure-to-accommodate claim for injuries is barred by the exclusive remedy provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA), the justices noted that both the LAD and the WCA are remedial and that the Law Against Discrimination’s is given liberal construction in keeping with its “worthy purpose” of “eradication of the cancer of discrimination” in society. They recalled that the Law Against Discrimination was amended to say that “all remedies available in common law tort actions shall be available,” and pointed out that this was written while the Workers’ Compensation Act was already in place. They concluded that the two statutes “can function cumulatively and complementarily.”
This decision echoes sentiments that have been voiced repeatedly through the years by Alan Schorr on behalf of the firm’s clients, and strongly supports the rights of New Jersey employees. It makes clear the state’s sincere interest in protecting the rights of workers against discrimination.
If you have been a victim of workplace discrimination and would like to learn more about the rights available to you, contact our experienced and compassionate employment law firm today.