New Jersey Employment Lawyer Blog

Articles Posted in Discrimination

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A recent age discrimination case from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey is a helpful reminder that just because your employer has a good excuse for its decision to fire you, it does not necessarily mean the company did not violate the law.

Carol Natale began working for East Coast Salon Services, Inc., in November 2006. At the time she was 59 years old.   A little over five years later, the salon’s owner, Stan Klet, called the store. Ms. Natale answered the telephone by saying “East Coast Salon, how can I help you?” Ms. Klet claimed Ms. Natale violated company policy by failing to give her name when she answered the phone. He also claimed Ms. Natale challenged him when he told her she had violated this policy. In contrast, Ms. Natale says she told Mr. Klet that nobody ever told her to provide her name when she answers the telephone. She also claims she apologized to Mr. Klet during the call and that she did not argue with him.

Beauty Supply Discrimination LawsuitAfter checking with its Human Resources Department, the company fired Ms. Natale. It claims it fired her because she was insubordinate, argumentative and disrespectful during the call with Mr. Klet.

Ms. Natale, who was 66 years old at the time, filed a lawsuit against the salon and Mr. Klet. She alleges they fired her in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”). The defendants eventually filed a motion for summary judgment, asking the judge to dismiss the case against them.

In Natale v. East Coast Salon Services, Inc., the trial judge denied that motion. He recognized that employers have the right to fire employees because they engage in rude or disrespectful behavior. However, he found enough evidence that a reasonable jury could conclude Ms. Natale’s age was a factor in the salon’s decision to fire her.

In essence, the judge concluded that a jury could find Ms. Natale’s immediate supervisor, Faith Fritz, actually made the decision to fire her before Mr. Klet’s telephone call with her. The evidence to support this includes the fact that Ms. Fritz apparently made discriminatory comments about Ms. Natale’s age. For instance, Ms. Natale claims Ms. Fritz told her she was wearing “old lady pull up pants”; indicated she would “look younger if [her] nails were squared off”; sent Ms. Natale home for wearing “old lady shoes”; described her sneakers as making her look like a “retarded old nurse”; and claimed Ms. Natale was “old enough to be her grandmother.”

The judge explained that even though Ms. Fritz may not have made the ultimate decision to fire Ms. Natale, discriminatory comments by someone who did not make the decision can “be used to build a circumstantial case of discrimination.” He ruled it is up to a jury to determine whether Ms. Fritz’s discriminatory comments support the conclusion that the salon fired Ms. Natale because of her age, or merely were stray remarks.

The judge also identified other evidence that could support an inference of discrimination. For example, he noted Ms. Natale testified that in October 2011 Ms. Fritz took away her Tuesday shifts and instead assigned them to an employee who was 15 years younger than her. He also recognized that Ms. Natale has evidence indicating Ms. Fritz recommended firing her and the salon had hired her replacement before she even received the telephone call from Mr. Klet. In other words, the judge found evidence that the salon’s justification for firing Ms. Natale was a pretext (excuse to cover up) age discrimination. Accordingly, he denied the company’s motion for summary judgment to allow a jury to decide whether the salon discriminated against Ms. Natale in violation of the ADEA.

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A recent disability discrimination opinion from the District of New Jersey reflects the relatively low burden an employee has to meet to have his case decided by a jury.

Damian Melton, a Type I diabetic, worked as a doorperson for Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City for approximately six years.  Due to his medical condition, Resorts granted Mr. Melton an intermittent leave under the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and did not require him to work the graveyard shift as a reasonable accommodation for his disability.

Hotel Doorman Disability DiscriminationIn August 2010, Mr. Melton injured his shoulder, necessitating surgery.  When he returned to work a few months later the hotel assigned him to a light duty job as a valet cashier.

Around the same time, the company that owned Resorts went into foreclosure.  Another company, DGMB Casino, LLC, agreed to purchase the hotel.  All of the hotel’s employees received notices from Resorts informing them their employment was being terminated as of December 1, 2010.  They also received notices from DGMB inviting them to apply for jobs with it.

Mr. Melton applied for numerous jobs, including doorperson, but DGMB did not hire him.  Instead, it hired six doorpersons, five of whom previously worked for Resorts and a sixth who had not.

Mr. Melton sued, claiming DGMB failed to hire him in violation of both the FMLA and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”).  The employer filed a motion for summary judgment, asking the trial judge to dismiss his LAD claim.  It argued Mr. Melton could not prove he was objectively qualified to perform his job, which is a requirement to prove a discrimination claim.  Specifically, it claimed he did not have the physical ability to work as a doorperson.

In analyzing this issue, the judge explained it is necessary to determine the essential job functions of a doorperson.  This has to be decided on a case-by-case basis, considering factors including which job duties the employer considers essential, what is stated in the written job description, how much time employees spend performing each function and the consequences if an employee is unable to perform the function.

Mr. Melton argued he is objectively qualified to perform his job because he was worked for Resorts as a doorperson for six years and received positive reviews from his supervisors and customers.  The Court noted that due to his shoulder injury, Mr. Melton was unable to work as a doorperson when he last worked for Resorts and needed a light duty position.  However, it recognized this was a temporary accommodation while his shoulder healed, and found he presented sufficient evidence to establish he was qualified for the job.

DGMB also argued Mr. Melton was not qualified for the job because he did not have enough flexibility with his work schedule since he cannot work the graveyard shift.  It claimed this was important since there are only six doorpersons who have to cover the job 24 hours per day, seven days per week.  However, Mr. Melton presented evidence that most of the other doorpersons work regular set schedules.  Based on this, the judge ruled there is enough evidence for a jury to find Mr. Melton is qualified for the job.

Finally, the judge found there is enough evidence for a jury to find DGMB did not hire Mr. Melton because of his disability.  The company claimed it did not hire him because he had poor job performance and a negative attitude in the past, and offered some evidence to support these claims.  Nonetheless, the Court relied on the positive reviews Mr. Melton received from his employer and customers.  It found this was enough to allow a jury to question the company’s explanation and to conclude his disability was the real reason DGMB chose not to hire him.  Accordingly, in Melton v. Resorts International Hotel, Inc., the Court denied the company’s motion for summary judgment.

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In a recent case, a federal judge in the District of New Jersey denied an employer’s motion for summary judgment because the employer failed to meet its very limited burden to provide a legitimate non-discriminatory reason why it failed to promote her.

The employee, Employee Sues Sears for DiscriminationVirginia Forchion, claims Sears Outlet Stores, LLC, failed to promote her to the position of lead sales associate because of her age, gender, and race. She filed a lawsuit under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”). Sears asked a trial judge to dismiss her case on a motion for summary judgment. The judge denied the motion, finding Sears failed to provide any explanation why it hired Bradley Stonehouse, a younger white male, for the position instead of promoting Ms. Forchion.

To understand why the judge denied Sears’ motion, it is necessary to understand how judges analyze employment discrimination claims. Since proving discrimination case can be difficult, judges apply something called the McDonnell Douglas test. Under that test, the burden shifts back and forth between the employer and the employee.

First, the employee has to establish a basic (or “prima facie”) case of discrimination. This relatively limited requirement is intended to weed out cases that are not consistent with the possibility that the employer discriminated against the employee.

Once the employee establishes a prima facie case of discrimination, the employer has to state a non-discriminatory reason for its action. The employer does not have to prove this reason is true. It merely has to present some evidence that, if true, would support a non-discriminatory reason for its decision. As a result, it is rare that an employer cannot meet this burden.

If the employer presents a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for its decision then the burden shifts back to the employee to prove it is more likely than not that the employer’s decision was discriminatory. Most cases are won or lost at this final stage. But that is not what happened in Ms. Forchion’s case.

Rather, on its motion Sears asked the judge to dismiss Ms. Forchion’s case because she never applied for the promotion. It argued she had to prove she applied for the position as part of her prima facie case.

The judge disagreed. He found Ms. Forchion instead could rely on the fact that Sears hired Mr. Stonehouse for the position without informing anyone in the department about the job opening. The judge also noted that since there was no job description for the position, only a jury can decide whether Ms. Forchion was at least as qualified as Mr. Stonehouse for the job.

The judge also recognized that Ms. Forcion’s age, gender and race are legally protected categories under the LAD. He indicated that she testified she had the most seniority in her department, was familiar with the duties of lead sales associate, and was at least as qualified as anyone else for the job. Based on this evidence he concluded that Ms. Forchion had met her initial burden.

However, the judge concluded that Sears failed to meet its burden to demonstrate a non-discriminatory reason for failing to promote Ms. Forchion. It argued that Ms. Forchion never applied for the job, but never explained why it chose to hire Mr. Stonehouse without even considering promoting Ms. Forchion. Accordingly, in Forchion v. Sears Outlet Stores, LLC, the judge ruled that Sears failed to provide a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for failing to promote Ms. Forchion. It therefore denied Sears’ motion for summary judgment.

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A recent ruling from New Jersey’s Appellate Division upheld a $1.4 million emotional distress damages award to two employees in a race discrimination case.

Brothers Ramon and Jeffrey Cuevas worked for The Wentworth Group. Ramon was the company’s only Hispanic regional vice president. Jeffrey Cuevas was hired as a portfolio manager, and subsequently promoted to executive director.

Ramon claims the company subjected him to a variety of racially-motivated derogatory comments including members of management:

  • Telling him there are no Mexican restaurants nearby so they cannot get burritos or tacos;
  • Claiming he preferred to listen to Mariachi or salsa music;
  • Calling an Hispanic bus boys his twin;
  • Joking he could wash dishes instead of paying for lunch;
  • Saying they wanted to walk with Ramon for safety in Newark because “he’s with his people” and “I’m sure he has a switchblade;” and
  • Claiming he had a “little Taco Bell Chihuahua dog.”

Image of eyeglasses and financial documents at workplace with buJeffrey testified he heard numerous offensive and discriminatory comments, including calling him and his brother “Rico Suave,” the “Suave brothers” the “Latin Lovers” and a “Chihuahua.” He also heard comments about Mexican food and salsa music and dancing that were targeted at him and Ramon because they are Hispanic.

Jeffery eventually complained to the company’s in-house counsel about the harassment. Four days later, Wentworth fired him. Approximately three weeks later, the company fired Ramon.

After a trial, a jury found in favor of both Ramon and Jeffrey and awarded them at total of approximately $2.5 million. The company appealed.

In Cuevas v. Wentworth Group, the Appellate Division upheld the Cuevas’s harassment claims, finding the racist comments occurred frequently enough to create a hostile work environment. It noted there were other witnesses who testified about many of the discriminatory comments.

The court also affirmed the jury’s finding that Wentworth fired the brothers because of their race and in retaliation for Jeffrey’s complaint about the harassment. Among other things, it relied on the fact that the company never documented any job performance problems or warned them about their performance. It explained that although employers are not required to document performance issues, a jury can consider the lack of prior warnings as evidence the company’s real reason for firing them was because of their race. The court found their retaliation claims were further supported by the fact that Wentworth fired Jeffrey only 4 days after he complained about the harassment, and fired Ramon a mere 3 weeks later.

The Appellate division rejected Wentworth’s argument that the damages the jury awarded for emotional distress were unreasonably high. Although neither Ramon nor Jeffrey received any psychotherapy, the court concluded the jury’s awards were “generous” but not so excessive that it could overturn them. It ruled Ramon’s $800,000 emotional distress damages award was supported by his testimony that he was “more lethargic,” “beaten down,” “despondent,” and too embarrassed to talk to his wife, and that getting fired caused friction in his marriage and contributed to him getting divorced a few months later. Likewise, it found Jeffrey’s $600,000 emotional distress damages award was supported by his testimony that the discrimination hurt his confidence, caused him to fall into a depression, left him feeling “tarnished” and unable to trust people, and made him feel he was “almost limping along [in] life” and no longer the same person.

However, the court overturned the $150,000 in economic damages the jury awarded Jeffrey because it was more than twice his actual losses. Similarly, it reversed Ramon’s $782,500 economic damages award because he failed to provide Wentworth copies of his tax returns. The court indicated the company could have used those records to contradict Ramon’s testimony about how much he actually earned after Wentworth fired him.

Finally, the court reversed the punitive damages awards to both brothers, as well as the award of attorneys’ fees to their lawyer, so they can be decided after a new jury redetermines their economic damages.

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A few weeks ago, the United States Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued new enforcement guidelines regarding the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) and related claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The PDA prohibits most employers from discriminating against employees based on pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions. It also requires them to treat women based on their ability or inability to work, rather than based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against employees because they have a disability, including a pregnancy-related disability. It also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to permit disabled employees to perform the essential functions of their jobs.

Casual pregnant businesswoman smiling at computer at her desk inThe EEOC’s guidelines make it clear employers cannot discriminate against employees based on a current or past pregnancy. It notes employees are more likely to prove discrimination claims based on past pregnancies when the employer takes an adverse action (such as termination or demotion) relatively quickly after the employee gave birth. For instance, there can be a strong inference of pregnancy discrimination when an employer takes a negative action while the employee is still on a maternity leave, or right after she returns from one.

The EEOC further explains that the PDA prohibits employers from discriminating against employees because they intended to get pregnant. Accordingly, employers should not ask job candidates or employees whether they intend to become pregnant. The EEOC considers such questions evidence of discrimination if the employer subsequently takes a negative job action against the individual.

The guidance notes that although it would be impossible for an employer to discriminate against an employee based pregnancy unless it knows the employee is pregnant, a company can learn an employee is pregnant in a variety of ways including from the employee herself, through rumors or office gossip, or because the employee is visibly pregnant.

In addition, the EEOC states that employers cannot act based on assumptions and stereotypes about pregnant women, such as assuming they will have attendance problems or will not return to work after they give birth. Likewise, as long as an employee can perform her job an employer cannot force her to take a leave of absence because she is pregnant. This is true even if the employer believes it is acting in the employee’s best interests.

The EEOC explains that employers have to treat women who are pregnant, have recently given birth, or have a related medical condition the same way as they treat other employees of comparable ability (or inability) to perform their jobs. That applies with respect to providing modified or light duty work, paid or unpaid time off, and temporary reassignments. To the extent a pregnant employee requests something the employer has provided to a disabled employee as a reasonable accommodation, the employer must treat the pregnant employee equally, but it can deny the accommodation if doing so would impose an “undue hardship.”

The guidelines explain it can be unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee because she is lactating or breastfeeding since those are pregnancy-related medical conditions specific to women. For instance, an employer must provide the same rights to an employee who needs to lactate as it would provide to a disabled employee. In addition, the Affordable Care Act requires employers to provide hourly employees who are breastfeeding break time and a private place where they can express milk.

The EEOC also indicates that federal law prohibits discrimination against a female employee because she had an abortion, chose not to have an abortion, or is considering having an abortion. Likewise, they indicate federal law prohibits employers from making employment decision based on whether or not a female employee uses contraceptives.

Moreover, the guidelines note that discrimination against an employee because she is a caregiver does not violate the PDA. But as I have previously discussed, the EEOC previously explained when federal law prohibits Discrimination Against Caregivers.

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A recent Appellate Division opinion recognizes that firing an employee because he or she is in the process of getting divorced violates the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) because it constitutes marital status discrimination.

Robert Smith worked for the Millville Rescue Squad for 17 years as an emergency medical technician (EMT) for 27 years. Mr. Smith’s wife, who also worked for Millville, was one of his subordinates. The couple separated after Mr. Smith’s wife learned he had been having an affair with another subordinate.

Mr. Smith told his supervisor, John Redden, that he had his wife had separated, and indicated he did not think there was any chance he would reconcile with her. Millville fired Mr. Smith approximately six weeks later.

According to Mr. Smith, Mr. Redden told him Millville was firing him because he supposedly was going through an ugly divorce with his wife. In contrast, Millville claims it fired Mr. Smith as part of a job restructuring and Mr. Smith’s allegedly poor job performance.

closeup of a lawyer sitting in his desk showing a divorce decreeMr. Smith filed a lawsuit in which he claims Millville fired him because of his marital status, in violation of the LAD. The case went to trial, but the judge dismissed the case after Mr. Smith presented all of his evidence. The trial court found Mr. Smith’s evidence could not support a marital status discrimination claim because there was no evidence Millville fired him because he was married or not married. It concluded that employers have the right to fire employees because they are concerned that their divorce would become messy.

However, in the unpublished opinion of Smith v. Millville Rescue Squad the Appellate Division disagreed. It concluded that for purposes of the LAD, “marital status” means more than either being married or single. For example, it also includes being engaged, separated, or involved in divorce proceedings.

The Appellate Division found Mr. Smith’s alleged facts, if true, would be direct evidence of marital status discrimination. In particular, a jury could find Mr. Redden’s statements to Mr. Smith were admissions that Millville decided to fire him because it assumed his divorce was going to be ugly.

The Appellate Division expressly rejected the trial court’s finding that Millville had the right to fire Mr. Smith because of its fear his divorce would turn ugly. It deemed this rationale to be based on stereotypes about divorcing spouses, including the assumption that they “are antagonistic, uncooperative with each other, and incapable of being civil or professional in each other’s company in the workplace.” The court explained that although it would be lawful for an employer to fire an employee because of his or her actual negative behavior at work caused by a difficult divorce, there was no evidence of any such behavior by Mr. Smith. Rather, Millville “acted on a fear, apparently based in stereotype that such conduct would follow.”

The Appellate Division also explained that employers can enforce anti-nepotism rules that prohibit two related employees from working for the same employer even if it means firing an employee because his or her spouse also works for the same employer. However, Millville fired Mr. Smith because he was getting divorced, not because he and his wife worked for the same company. Further, the court found it was irrelevant that Millville did not fire other employees who were divorced or divorcing, since it apparently was discriminating against a “subset of divorcing employees,” namely “those married to a fellow employee.” Accordingly, it remanded Mr. Smith’s case for a new trial.

 

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While minorities are most frequently the victims of discrimination, it is well-established that reverse discrimination also violates the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD). For example, it is unlawful for a company to discriminate against an employee because he is male, white, or under 40 years old. However, since reverse discrimination is less common, New Jersey courts have established a higher standard for employees who bring reverse discrimination or harassment claims by requiring them to present evidence that they work for the unusual employer that discriminates against the majority.

WarehouseA recent decision out of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey denied an employer’s motion to dismiss a claim of reverse race discrimination, finding the employee had enough evidence to meet this heightened standard. The court explained there are two categories of evidence that employees can use to help meet this standard: (1) evidence that the specific employer has a reason to want to discriminate against the majority, and (2) evidence there is “something ‘fishy’” about the facts of the case that suggests the employer is discriminating.

The case was brought by Frank McQuillan, who worked for Petco Animal Supplies Stores, Inc., as an order picker at a distribution center in Monroe, New Jersey. Mr. McQuillan claims Petco harassed him because he is Caucasian.

Mr. McQuillan was the only Caucasian employee who worked on the floor of the distribution center. He alleges (1) his supervisors and most of his coworkers were Hispanic; (2) signs were posted in the workplace in Spanish without English translations; (4) his coworkers constantly referred to him by the terms “gringo” and “maricon,” which are derogatory terms for foreigners and homosexuals, respectively; (3) a manager praised Mr. McQuillan’s work by saying it was “not bad for a white boy;” and (4) the company’s management did not take any actions to stop the harassment. He also claims the company caused him to have lower productivity than his coworkers by not giving him a headset that would have made it easier to perform one aspect of his job even though it provided them to non-Caucasian employees who were hired after him, and by assigning him to lift heavier pallets than his non-Caucasian peers. The court found these facts, if proven, could meet the heightened standard to prove reverse discrimination because they could support an inference that Petco is the unusual employer that discriminates against employees because they are white.

The court also found that Mr. McQuillan’s allegations are sufficient to support a harassment claim. To be legally actionable, harassment has to be severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment. The court noted that even though each individual act of harassment Mr. McQuillan experience was not severe enough to be actionable on its own, when considered together they could create a hostile work environment and therefore could be legally actionable. Accordingly, in McQuillan v. Petco Animal Supplies Stores, Inc. the court denied Petco’s motion to dismiss Mr. McQuillan’s harassment claim, thereby providing him an opportunity to try to prove his case.

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Last last year, I discussed a federal case, Wang v. Phoenix Satellite TV US, Inc., which concludes that New York Law Does Not Protect Unpaid Interns From Sexual Harassment.  While that still may be true in the rest of New York State, New York City recently amended its anti-discrimination law to make it clear that both paid and unpaid interns are protected by the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL).

Manager with employee working in officeSpecifically, on April 15, 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law an amendment to the New York City administrative code which will protect interns in the same way the code currently protects employees.  The law goes into effect sixty days after it was signed.  As a result, starting on June 16, 2014, New York City law will protect interns who work in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island from discrimination based on their actual or perceived age, race, creed, color, national origin, gender, disability, marital status, partnership status, sexual orientation, alienage, citizenship, or status as a victim of domestic violence, a sex offense or stalking.  Likewise, New York City law will prohibit employers from harassing interns based on any of those categories, including prohibiting sexually harassment.  It also will prohibit employers from retaliating against interns because they complain about employment discrimination or harassment in the workplace.

The new law defines “intern” to include anyone who (1) receives training or supplements the training they are receiving in an educational environment and (2) receives work experience for the benefit of an employer, and (3) does so under the close supervision of an employer’s staff.  It includes such individuals irrespective of whether he or she is paid or unpaid.  It is unclear whether this may leave a gap of individuals who do not fit the administrative code’s definition of either “employee” or “intern,” such as individuals who receive the required training or work experience, but not both.  However, the alternative potentially would have covered students who receive training for universities and other educational institutions, a group which the New York City Council apparently did not intend to protect.

In its report supporting the amendment, the New York City Council’s Committee on Civil Rights noted that 69% of companies with at least 100 employees had internships in 2012, and that 63% of college graduates in 2012 had participated in at least one internship.  It further recognized that since interns tend to be relatively young, inexperienced and either unpaid or under paid, they are particularly vulnerable in the workplace.  It therefore was concerned that the Wang case concluded they are not protected by the NYCHRL, and wanted to amend the law so it unquestionably protects them in the same way as any other employee.

Whether the rest of New York State follows suit and protects interns from discrimination, harassment and retaliation is yet to be seen.  Until then, at least New York City will provide that protection.

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The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees because they are disabled.  It defines a “disability” as a physical or psychological impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.  As a result, not every impairment is a disability.  In contrast, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), the New York Human Rights Law (NYHRL) and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) all have significantly broader definitions of the term “disability” including relatively minor mental and physical impairments.

in officeLate last month, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals recognized that an impairment that prohibits an employee for sitting for too long can be a disability even under the ADA.  The employee, Carmen Parada, worked for Banco Industrial de Venezuela, C.A.  Approximately six months after she started working for the bank, Ms. Parada fell and hurt her back.  As a result, she no longer is able to sit for a prolonged period.  According to one of her medical reports, she is able to sit for only 15 minutes before she has to stand.

Ms. Parada asked the bank for an ergonomic chair which she believed would have allowed her to perform her job.  The bank did not respond to her requests so she asked again, this time offering to pay for the chair herself.  When she still did not receive any response she told the bank she could not continue to perform her job without a new chair.  When the bank’s Operations Manager finally told Ms. Parada he would discuss her request when he returned from a business trip she complained to the Compliance Officer and requested a leave of absence.  Ultimately, the bank fired Ms. Parada, claiming she failed to provide sufficient documentation to prove she was disabled and needed a medical leave, and declaring it considered her to have abandoned her job. 

Ms. Parada sued, claiming the bank committed disability discrimination in violation of the ADA, the NYHRL and the NYCHRL.  However, the District Court dismissed her ADA claim, ruling she was not disabled under it based on an earlier case, Colwell v. Suffolk County Police Department.  That case found a police officer who was unable to sit or stand for “too long” was not disabled for purposes of the ADA.

On appeal, the Second Circuit reversed.  It distinguished Colwell by explaining the employee in that case was too vague about his physical limitations.  It ruled that employees do not have to prove they are completely unable to sit to establish they are disabled with respect to the major life activity of sitting.  Rather, the relevant question is whether the employee is substantially impaired in his or her ability to sit in comparison to the average person.

The court further explained that the ADA requires employers and courts to make that determination on a case-by-case basis.  As a result, it would be improper to set a bright-line rule that only employees who are unable to sit at all are substantially impaired with respect to sitting.  In doing so it recognized that, under the right circumstances, even an employee who merely cannot sit for an extended period time could be disabled under the ADA.

Applying that law, in Parada v. Banco Industrial de Venezuela, C.A., the Second Circuit reversed the District Court’s order dismissing the case.  It instructed the lower court to analyze Ms. Parada’s impairments to determine whether her back injury meets the ADA’s definition of a disability.

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Yesterday, Governor Christie signed a law that prohibits pregnancy discrimination in New Jersey. The Act, which is an amendment to the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”), adds pregnancy to the list of legally protected categories. Importantly, it defines “pregnancy” broadly to include not only pregnancy itself but also childbirth, medical conditions related to pregnancy or childbirth, and recovery from childbirth.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for New Jersey Passes Law Prohibiting Pregnancy Discrimination.jpgThe new law is expressly premised on the fact that “pregnant women are vulnerable to discrimination in the workplace in New Jersey.” It notes that “women who request an accommodation that will allow them to maintain a healthy pregnancy, or who need a reasonable accommodation while recovering from childbirth, are being removed from their positions, placed on unpaid leave, or fired.” Its goal is to eliminate those forms of discrimination from the workplace.

In the past, many court opinions have found pregnancy discrimination to be a form of unlawful gender discrimination. However, not every court has agreed, leaving some uncertainty in the law. This new law removes any doubt that it is unlawful for an employer to treat a woman worse because of her pregnancy or childbirth, and makes it clear that employers cannot treat pregnant women less favorably than their similarly situated coworkers.

This amendment to the LAD also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees based on the advice of their physician, irrespective of whether the employee is disabled. It lists examples of potential accommodations as including “bathroom breaks, breaks for increased water intake, periodic rest, assistance with manual labor, job restructuring or modified work schedules, and temporary transfers to less strenuous or hazardous work.” It also makes it clear that companies must offer their pregnant employees at least as much paid and unpaid time off as it provides to comparable employees who are not pregnant.

However, the law makes it clear that employers do not have to provide an accommodation if it can show it would impose an undue hardship on its business. It lists factors to determine whether a particular accommodation would impose an undue hardship as including (1) the overall size of the employer’s business including the number of employees, the number and type of facilities, and the size of budget; (2) the nature of the employer’s operations, including the composition and structure of its workforce; (3) the nature and cost of the accommodation; and (4) the extent to which the company would need to waive an essential job requirement to provide the accommodation. This final consideration seems to imply that, at least under certain circumstances an employer might be required to waive an essential job requirement to accommodate a pregnant employee. If so, this would be significant since employers are not required to waive essential job functions, even temporarily, when providing reasonable accommodations for an employee’s disability or religious belief.

Since the LAD already included a broad anti-retaliation provision, it now prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who complain about pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. In addition, it includes a new provision forbidding employers for penalizing an employee for requesting or using an accommodation for a pregnancy-related condition.

The amendment also includes a provision that makes it unlawful for individuals and companies to refuse to enter into or renew contracts or otherwise do business with someone because she is pregnant. As a result, in addition to protecting employees it also protects independent contractors.
The new law and all of its requirements went into effect on January 16, 2014. You can read the full text online.

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