Court Dismisses Failure to Accommodate Claim But Allows Related Retaliation Claim to Proceed

Recently, the District of New Jersey dismissed an employee’s disability discrimination and failure to accommodate disability claims, but did not dismiss her related retaliation claim.

Female employee can proceed with retaliation claimAmber Ray worked as a Project Manager/Estimator for Elecnor Hawkeye, LLC.  Before she began working for Elecnor, Ms. Ray had been diagnosed with Lupus. However, sometime after Elecnor fired her, she learned she had been misdiagnosis and actually had Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which is a complex musculoskeletal condition, and several other auto-immune conditions.

On Friday, July 30, 2021, Ms. Ray sent a text message to her supervisor, Hal Meeler, informing him that she would be working from home that day.  In response, Mr. Meeler told Ms. Ray she was required to work in the office, and he would discuss the issue with her on Monday.

Later that day, Ms. Ray forwarded her text message to Mr. Meeler to Elecnor’s Director of New Jersey Operations, John Petrina, and its Human Resources Manager, Brynn Noone, and asked them to put document it in her personnel file.

The following day, Ms. Ray sent an email to Mr. Noone in which she asked to telecommute, as a reasonable accommodation for an autoimmune disorder, until the COVID-19 delta variant’s transmission rates subsided.

Ms. Ray took August 2 and August 3, 2021 off from work to care for her grandchild.  On August 2, Mr. Meeler, Mr. Petrina, Ms. Noone and another Human Resources employee, Aubrey Allen, discussed Ms. Ray’s request for an accommodation and decided that Elecnor was not going to provide her an accommodation.

On August 4, Mr. Meeler and Mr. Petrina told Ms. Ray that she was fired,  They told her the company was “going in a different direction.”  The company claims it fired Ms. Ray for “insubordination and unprofessional conduct.” It claimed that included various things that had occurred before the company knew about her medical condition or she requested an accommodation for a disability, up to and including her July 30, 2021 declaration that she would not work in the office on that day.

Ms. Ray filed a lawsuit against Elecnor alleging it fired her because of her disabilities, failed to accommodate her disabilities, and fired her in retaliation for requesting a reasonable accommodation for her disabilities. She asserted each of those claims under both the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”).

Elecnor eventually filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking to have Ms. Ray’s entire case dismissed.  In a December 6, 2023 opinion, Ray v. Elecnor Hawkeye LLC, the District Court granted summary judgment on Ms. Ray’s disability discrimination and failure to accommodate disability claims.  The Court concluded that Ms. Ray’s medical conditions did not meet the ADA’s definition of a disability, or that Elecnor regarded her as having a disability.  For some reason, the Court apparently did not analyze whether her disabilities met the LAD’s broader definition of a disability.

However, the Court did not dismiss Ms. Ray’s retaliation claim.  The Judge explained that, to support a retaliation claim, an employee does not have to prove she had a disability but only that she requested an accommodation in good faith.  He recognized that Ms. Ray requested an accommodation, namely to work remotely.

Ultimately, the Court concluded that Ms. Ray had enough evidence to allow a jury to conclude that Elecnor’s claim that it fired her due to “insubordination and unprofessional conduct” is a pretext (excuse) for retaliation.  That evidence includes the fact that Elecnor fired Ms. Ray only four days after she requested an accommodation, and that the company suddenly began to document Ms. Ray’s purported misconduct after she requested an accommodation, even though the misconduct occurred earlier and the company had not previously documented it.

Contact Information