Termination Three Weeks After Medical Leave Supports Disability Discrimination Claim

A recent decision by New Jersey’s Appellate Division demonstrates that under the right circumstances an employee can prove disability discrimination from the fact that her employer fired her shortly after she had surgery.

Employee prvails in age and disability discrimination appealAda Caballero worked for Cablevision Systems Corporation for 15 years.  In 2013, she was divorced.  A few months after her divorce was finalized, Ms. Caballero submitted a copy of the divorce judgment to the company’s human resources department.  However, Cablevision did not remove her ex-husband from its health insurance plan.

On Ms. Caballero’s 2014 performance evaluation, Cablevision gave her a rating of “strong performance.”

In May 2015, Ms. Caballero underwent gallbladder surgery and took a medical leave to recover. During that leave of absence, Cablevision realized Ms. Caballero’s ex-husband was still on its health insurance.  Accordingly, it called her and asked if she had taken him off of the policy.  Ms. Caballero responded that she had done so in 2013 and again in March 2015.

Ms. Caballero returned from her medical leave in mid-July 2015.  Approximately 3 weeks later, Cablevision fired her. At the time, Ms. Caballero was 50 years old. Cablevision replaced her with someone in their 30s.

The company claims it fired Ms. Caballero because she committed fraud by choosing not to take the steps necessary to have her husband removed from the health insurance. Ms. Caballero disputes this, and claims she did what she believed she needed to do for Cablevision to take her ex-husband off of the policy.

Ms. Caballero filed a lawsuit against Cablevision alleging, among other things, that Cablevision fired her because of her age and her disability, in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”).

Cablevision filed a motion for summary judgment.  The trial court granted that motion and dismissed Ms. Caballero’s lawsuit.  Ms. Caballero appealed.

Last week, in the unpublished opinion of Caballero v. Cablevision Systems Corp., the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s order which had dismissed the case.  With respect to Ms. Caballero’s age discrimination claim, the Appellate Division recognized that Cablevision fired her when she was 50 years old, shortly after it gave her a very positive performance evaluation, and replaced her with someone nearly half her age.

The court further concluded that it should be up to a jury to decide whether Ms. Caballero was trying to improperly keep her husband on the company’s health insurance, or really believed she had done what she was supposed to do to have him removed from it.  In other words, a jury needs to decide whether Cablevision fired Ms. Caballero for fraud, or if that was a pretext (meaning an excuse to cover up) for age discrimination.

With respect to Ms. Caballero’s disability discrimination claim, the Court ruled that either Ms. Caballero’s medical condition was a disability within the meaning of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”), or Cablevision perceived her to be disabled.  In doing so, it recognized that the LAD defines disability broadly to go far beyond “severe or immutable disabilities.”

The Appellate Division also noted that Cablevision attempted to take credit for the fact that it had not disciplined or fired Caballero after it granted her seven prior medical leaves.  The Court questioned why Cablevision would have even considered disciplining someone for taking a medical leave, implicitly finding the company’s attempt to take credit for not violating the law in the past was evidence of discriminatory animus.

Ultimately, the Court concluded that Ms. Caballero “was terminated so soon after surgery,” which “suggested … that Cablevision’s true reason for the termination was its hostility toward plaintiff’s medical condition, as amplified by its discontent with prior medical leaves.”  Accordingly, the Court reversed the trial court’s decision dismissing Ms. Caballero’s case so her case can proceed to a trial.

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