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LAD: ‘Reasonable’ accommodation does not mean ‘Permanent’

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in Employment Law,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

by Sandro Polledri, Esq., Genova, Burns & Vernoia

Many employees have some type of medical condition or disability that affects their ability to perform their jobs. Employers need to understand their obligations to disabled employees and the rights granted to disabled employees under New Jersey law.

A decision recently handed down by the New Jersey Supreme Court clarifies exactly what obligation employers have to accommodate disabled employees under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).

The bottom line: You don’t have to create permanent light-duty positions to accommodate disabled employees who can’t return to their original jobs. (Raspa v. Office of the Sheriff of the County of Gloucester, Supreme Court of New Jersey, 2007)

More than two years of light duty

Michael Raspa was a corrections officer diagnosed with Graves’ disease. As a result of his illness, Raspa developed an incurable eye condition causing bulging of the eyes and double vision. As Raspa’s medical condition deteriorated, his doctor recommended that he avoid contact with prison inmates.

The sheriff’s office placed Raspa on “restricted duty” and gave him “light work” so he would not come into contact with inmates. Four months later, the sheriff’s office gave priority for light-work assignments to employees who had been injured on the job. Since Raspa did not suffer an on-the-job injury, he was limited to 30 days of light-work duty. Despite the 30-day limitation, he stayed on light duty for two and a half years until he was placed on disability retirement in June 2002.

Raspa then filed suit, alleging the sheriff’s office failed to “reasonably accommodate” his disability under the LAD. A jury awarded Raspa $273,000, which the Appellate Division affirmed.

The NJ Supreme Court weighs in

The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed and held that the scope of the LAD is limited. The LAD is broad in the sense that it does not allow discrimination or unlawful employment practices, such as termination, because a person was or is disabled. However, if the person’s disability “precludes the performance of the particular employment,” the LAD does not protect the employee from termination.

The court evaluated the written job specifications issued by the New Jersey Department of Personnel to see what a corrections officer’s duties are. The specifications say inmate contact is a job requirement. The specifications add that people with disabilities are eligible for the position if they can perform the essential job functions after the employer makes reasonable accommodations for their known limitations. The court concluded that Raspa could not perform those duties, and he did not dispute that finding.

Instead, Raspa argued that since the sheriff’s office gave him a light-duty assignment for three years that allowed him to avoid contact with inmates, that accommodation should continue indefinitely.

No indefinite light-duty required

The court rejected Raspa’s argument and held that “reasonable accommodation” means that an employer must make reasonable accommodations for an employee returning from disability leave and give the employee a reasonable amount of time to recover. However, the court held that, under LAD, an employer is not required to create an indefinite light-duty position for an employee with a permanent disability if—absent a reasonable accommodation—the employee is unqualified for the full-time position.

Furthermore, the court held that an employer does not violate LAD when it terminates an employee who is no longer able to perform the functions of the job, and who cannot be reasonably accommodated to do that job.

While the decision is a positive development for management, there were several facts that made it easier for the court to reach a pro-employer ruling. First, there was evidence that Raspa was entitled to receive comprehensive disability retirement benefits and continued health insurance coverage after his employment ended. Second, Raspa admitted he was unable to perform job duties that involved contact with prison inmates. Third, and perhaps most important, Raspa never claimed that his employer’s actions were motivated by “either ill will or an improper discriminatory animus.”

Sandro Polledri, Esq., is a partner and certified civil trial attorney at Genova, Burns & Vernoia (www.gbvlaw.com), a New Jersey-based law firm with offices in Livingston, Red Bank, Camden, New York and Philadelphia. He can be reached at (973) 533-0777 or spolledri@gbvlaw.com.  Alexandra Vernoia, a law clerk at Genova, Burns & Vernoia, assisted in the preparation of this article.

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