The New Jersey Supreme Court recently permitted a disabled nurse to proceed to trial on her claim that the termination of her employment constituted disability discrimination. The court based its decision on a factual dispute over the physical requirements of the nurse’s job, her employer’s apparent failure to consider potential accommodations for her disability, and a lack of evidence that her return to work posed a risk of harm to herself or others.
“Arianna” worked as a registered nurse (RN) for Saint Clare’s Health System. Her regular duties involved maintaining charts, administering medication, and general patient care—assisting patients with daily activities such as washing, bathing, dressing, walking, repositioning them in bed, and guarding them against falls.
In August 2008, Saint Clare’s performed job analyses for its nursing positions. The job analysis for RNs indicated the frequency with which certain job duties should be performed and identified certain tasks as essential to the RN position.
Beginning in 2007, Arianna suffered a series of work-related injuries. In March 2007, she injured her left shoulder while repositioning a patient in bed. In November 2008, she reinjured her left shoulder while lifting a patient’s legs. In February 2010, she injured her spine while moving a patient from a stretcher to a bed. After each injury, Arianna underwent surgery and was out of work for several months.
In July 2010, Arianna’s doctor cleared her to return to full-duty work. Before she could return, however, the hospital required her to undergo a functional capacity evaluation (FCE) by Kinematic Consultants, Inc. (KCI).
After the evaluation, KCI prepared a report stating that Arianna was qualified to return to work on altered duty and recommending that she seek assistance with heavier physical activities such as patient transfers, guarding ambulatory patients, and handling loads greater than 50 pounds. In an addendum KCI stated, “Please note that determination for final return to work abilities . . . is deferred to her treating physician . . . [Dr. Smith].”
Dr. Smith reexamined Arianna and indicated that she could return to work with the restrictions identified in the FCE. The following day, Arianna’s supervisors met with her and told her that they were terminating her employment because she had limitations that prevented her from doing her job. Shortly after her termination, Dr. Smith cleared Arianna to return to work with no limitations. Saint Clare’s refused to rehire her.
Arianna sued Saint Clare’s, alleging disability discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). Following the pretrial exchange of evidence, Saint Clare’s requested summary judgment (dismissal in its favor without a trial), asserting that Arianna was unable to perform an essential function of her job and expressing concern that she would reinjure herself or injure a patient if she returned to full duty.
The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Saint Clare’s because Arianna couldn’t establish that she was able to perform her job at a level that met her employer’s legitimate expectations. The Appellate Division reversed that decision, based in part on Dr. Smith’s certification that Arianna could return to work without restrictions. Saint Clare’s appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
New Jersey Supreme Court’s Decision
The NJLAD prohibits an employer from terminating an employee because of her disability unless the disability reasonably precludes the performance of the particular job or continued employment would be hazardous to the safety or health of the employee or others. Saint Clare’s relied on both defenses.
First, the supreme court ruled that an employees prima facie (minimally sufficient) case of disability discrimination under the NJLAD includes a reasonable accommodation component. That is, an employee needs to show either that she was actually performing her job to her employer’s legitimate expectations or that she was able to do so with or without reasonable accommodation.
The court concluded that Arianna had met her burden on this point because there was a question of fact about whether her absences from work following her injuries were sufficiently chronic and excessive to preclude her from showing that she was actually performing her job.
Next, the court found factual disputes that weighed against summary judgment in Saint Clare’s favor, specifically regarding its defense that Arianna’s firing was justified because she was unable to perform the essential functions of her job.
The court found a question of fact about which tasks were essential to her job because the lifting standards identified in the KCI report differed from those identified in the hospital’s job analysis. Furthermore, Arianna contended that neither document reflected what she actually did in her position.
Finally, the court denied Saint Clare’s request for summary judgment based on its defense that Arianna was unable to perform her job without posing a risk of harm to herself of others. The hospital pointed to her three injuries that required her to be absent from work, but the court noted that she was ultimately cleared to return to work after each injury and that the hospital hadn’t submitted any expert testimony supporting a risk of harm to Arianna or others.
The supreme court noted that it doesn’t intend to limit employers’ ability to set safety standards or to require that their employees be physically able to perform their job duties safely. Nonetheless, when terminating a disabled employee because of an inability to abide by such standards, an employer must prove that its standards relate to her duties and that no reasonable accommodation exists that will allow her to continue in her position.
This case demonstrates several important steps that you should take to ensure compliance with disability discrimination laws. Be sure that written job descriptions accurately reflect the duties that your employees perform, and update job descriptions as job duties change. You should also ensure that you consider potential accommodations for employees whose disabilities seem to prevent them from performing all of their job duties.
Howard Fetner is a contributor to the New Jersey Employment Law Letter.