The New Jersey Supreme Court issued a decision on June 8, 2021, holding that an adverse employment action is not a required element for a failure-to-accommodate claim under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) and these claims are not barred by the Worker’s Compensation Act (WCA). The Court’s decision in Richter v. Oakland Board of Education answered two questions that will govern the ability of plaintiffs to assert failure-to-accommodate cases under NJLAD and how those claims must be pleaded. In rendering this decision, the Court made clear that this type of claim in not barred by the “exclusive remedy provision” of the WCA because a plaintiff recovered workers’ compensation benefits. Further, there is no need for a plaintiff to establish an adverse employment action such as demotion, termination or another adverse action to proceed with a claim.
The case arose between Plaintiff, a middle school science teacher, and the Oakland Board of Education (the “Board”). Plaintiff, a diabetic, claimed that she made several requests of her school’s principal to move her lunch period to an earlier time so that she could better manage her blood sugar levels. Although some changes were initially made, Plaintiff’s lunch schedule ultimately remained the same. Later that year and in front of students, Plaintiff had a seizure allegedly induced by low blood sugar causing her to collapse and suffer significant injuries.
Because the injuries happened at work, Plaintiff filed a Workers’ Compensation claim and received benefits to cover her medical bills and disability. Thereafter, Plaintiff filed suit against the Board claiming that the school’s failure to change her lunch schedule to accommodate her diabetic condition violated NJLAD.
The Defendant responded in two-fold. First, it asserted that Plaintiff’s claim could not proceed because she failed to allege that she suffered an adverse action as a result of its failure to change her lunch schedule. Second, the Defendant claimed that because Plaintiff had filed and received benefits under the WCA, the act’s exclusivity remedy provision barred her NJLAD claims.
An Adverse Action is Not a Required Element for a Failure-to-Accommodate Claim
The Court first addressed the question of whether Richter must allege that she suffered an adverse action to pursue her failure-to-accommodate claim. In holding that she did not, the Court looked to the legislative intent of the NJLAD. In its analysis, the Court determined that the overriding purpose of the statute was to eradicate obstacles in the workplace for people with disabilities. To that end, the court stated that in serving this purpose, employers have an affirmative obligation, or in other words a duty, to make a reasonable accommodation when requested.
As applied to the failure-to-accommodate claim, the Court emphasized that the “wrongful act" underlying the claim is the employer's failure to perform its duty to accommodate. Accordingly, the Court reasoned that a failure-to-accommodate claim can arise from a breach of the employer’s duty with respect to "an employer's inaction, silence, or inadequate response to a reasonable accommodation request," and is "not dependent on causing harm to the employee through an adverse employment action." To require otherwise, the court stated, “would essentially render the reasonable accommodation requirement unenforceable" where an employer could “escape LAD liability merely because those consequences do not fit neatly into a definition of adverse employment action.”
Notably, and rather than considering the employer’s breach of duty as fitting within the definition of “adverse action,” the Court declined to “impose a formalistic hurdle” and did away with the adverse action element altogether in assessing future failure-to-accommodate claims.
Workers Compensation Act Does Not Bar NJLAD Claims
The Court then turned to the issue of whether the WCA exclusivity bar prohibited Richter from asserting claims under the NJLAD. The court began its review by looking to the language of the NJLAD which, based upon the most recent amendments to the statute, indicated that the legislature’s intent was for the remedies under the NJLAD to supplement the remedies available under other statues including the WCA.
The court then looked to whether the two statues conflicted. In finding that they did not, the court stated that each statute “operates to fulfill different purposes, both protective of workers in the workplace.” The WCA provides relief to workplace injuries while the NJLAD provides relief for discrimination. Accordingly, the court determined that the remedial purposes of each statute could co-exist and when read together, “operate to prevent double recovery.”
Takeaway for Employers
The New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision makes clear that a plaintiff need not allege an adverse employment action to assert a failure to accommodate claim. Thus, while employers should continue to be timely and diligent in addressing requests and engaging in the interactive process, this case provides a warning that should an injury occur due to a failure to accommodate, an employer could face liability even if no adverse action occurred. Moreover, employers should be aware that the WCA bar does not preclude a claimant from pursing a claim under the NJLAD, which in turn, exposes employers to additional damages if successful.