New Jersey Supreme Court Clarifies How to Prove Disability Discrimination

Earlier this week, the New Jersey Supreme Court clarified how to determine whether an employer fired an employee because of a disability in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”).

Nurse wins appeal in disability discrimination caseMaryanne Grande, RN, worked for Saint Clare’s Health System for approximately 10 years.  During that time she suffered four separate work-related injuries that required her to take significant time off and led to additional periods during which she only could work light duty.

In February 2010, while moving an obese patient from a stretcher to a bed, Ms. Grande had to grab the patient to prevent him from falling.  She injured her cervical spine and needed surgery which required over four months of recovery and rehabilitation.  When she finally returned to work she had to work light duty for several weeks.

In July 2010, Ms. Grande’s doctor cleared her to return to work without restrictions.  However, Saint Clare’s required her to undergo a functional capacity evaluation before it would allow her to return.  That evaluation concluded she could push, pull and lift, but only occasionally.  It also recommended that she should seek help when performing certain tasks, such as transferring patients or lifting more than fifty pounds.

On July 21, 2010, Ms. Grande’s doctor confirmed that she could return to work with the restrictions set forth in the functional capacity evaluation.   The very next day, Saint Clare’s fired her on the basis that the restrictions prevented her from performing her job.

Ms. Grande sued Saint Clare’s, claiming it fired her because of a disability, in violation of the LAD.  After discovery, Saint Clare’s filed a motion for summary judgment which the trial court granted, dismissing her case.

Ms. Grande appealed.  As explained in our previous article, Jury to Decide Whether Nurse’s Disability Prevented Her From Working, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s ruling and reinstated Ms. Grande’s case.  Saint Clare’s then appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

On July 12, 2017, in Grande v. Saint Clare’s Health System, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division’s ruling.  It explained that the LAD prohibits employers from firing employees because of a disability unless the disability “reasonably precludes the performance of the particular employment.”  It also recognized that employers can justify firing employees because of a disability if they prove, based on objective medical evidence, that “the employee’s [disability] presented a materially enhanced risk of substantial harm in the workplace.”

Even though Saint Clare’s admitted it fired Ms. Grande because of her disability, the Supreme Court declined to apply the “mixed motive” proof pattern, which would have shifted the ultimate burden of proof at trial from the employer to the employee.  The mixed motive proof pattern typically applies when an employer admits it considered an unlawful factor in making an employment decision but claims it would have made the same decision irrespective of that factor.  The Supreme Court found the mixed motive proof pattern does not apply to Ms. Grande’s case since the law expressly permits employers to fire employees because of a disability when the employee cannot perform the essential functions of her job either with or without a reasonable accommodation, and when the safety defense applies.

In any event, the Supreme Court found numerous factual disputes in Ms. Grande’s case that must be decided by a jury, including:

  • Whether Ms. Grande’s absences from work were sufficiently “chronic and excessive” to show she was unable to perform her job;
  • Whether Ms. Grande needed an accommodation to perform her job;
  • Whether a reasonable accommodation existed that would have allowed Ms. Grande to perform the essential functions of her job;
  • Whether Saint Clare’s written job description for its nurses accurately described the essential function of Ms. Grande’s job; and
  • Whether Saint Clare’s reasonably concluded, based on objective evidence, that Ms. Grande was unable to perform her job without posing a materially enhanced risk of causing substantial harm to herself or others.