The New Jersey Appellate Division Court recently considered the standard for discharging an employee based on a “perceived disability,” and in so doing reversed a grant of summary judgment to the defendant. In Grande v. Saint Clare’s Health System, the Court applied the standard established in 1998 in Jansen v. Food Circus Supermarkets, Inc., which provides that in evaluating whether an employee can remain in a position despite having a disability, the standard is “whether the handicapped person can do his or her work without posing a serious threat of injury to the health and safety of himself or herself or other employees.” This “requires the employer to conclude with a reasonable degree of certainty that the handicap would probably cause such an injury” before it can fire an employee. According to the Court, in determining whether the employee “poses a materially enhanced risk of serious injury . . . [p]robability, not mere possibility, is key.”
In this case, the plaintiff, Marianne Grande, worked as a nurse for the defendant employer, St. Clare’s Health System, for approximately ten years. During her last three years of employment, she suffered three injuries at work, two injuries to her shoulder and one to her back. Following her back injury, she took family and medical leave followed by personal leave. While on leave, the plaintiff’s physician cleared her to return to work full time without any restrictions. Despite such clearance, the defendant required her to participate in a “functional capacity evaluation test,” to assess her ability to, for example, lift certain objects and move in certain ways. In her role as a nurse, she worked with stroke victims and sometimes was required to move patients.
When the evaluation was completed, it provided for some restrictions. At this time, the plaintiff’s doctor allowed her to return to work in accordance with the restrictions set forth in the hospital’s evaluation. That same day, however, the hospital discharged the plaintiff indicating it could not accommodate her disability given the restrictions set forth in the evaluation. Approximately one month after her discharge, the plaintiff’s doctor cleared her to return to work, again without restrictions. Notwithstanding such clearance, the hospital declined to rehire her.