On June 8, the New Jersey Supreme Court determined that certain employees need not demonstrate they have suffered an adverse employment action when claiming discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

In the case, initially reported in School Board Notes on June 25, 2019, a longtime diabetic teacher suffered a hypoglycemic event in the classroom, fainted and sustained serious and permanent injuries when she hit her head on a science lab table. The teacher’s allegations of injury included a total loss of smell; implantation of a dental bridge and bone grafts; altered speech; post-concussion syndrome; vertigo; dizziness; severe emotional distress; and decreased life expectancy.

The teacher alleged that the accident would not have happened but for the principal’s refusal to accommodate her request to eat lunch during an earlier class period. As a Type I diabetic, she previously notified the administration of her need to maintain her blood sugar levels by eating lunch earlier in the day. However, despite assenting to her request for a single marking period, administrators ultimately assigned her to teach morning classes and to lunch duty during the student lunch periods, thus delaying her own lunch period until later in the school day. After the incident, the teacher filed suit against the school district and the building principal in his personal capacity.

In the trial court, the school district argued that the teacher voluntarily continued to teach after her blood sugar levels dropped and that she suffered no adverse employment action attributable to either board or administrative action. The trial court agreed and dismissed the complaint because the teacher could not demonstrate an adverse employment action, such as termination, demotion, transfer or any other negative employment action stemming from the district’s refusal of her requested accommodation, an earlier lunch hour.

On appeal, the Appellate Division acknowledged the elements of a prima facie case of discrimination, which require the plaintiff to show: (1) membership in a protected class, in this case, meaning that she is an individual with a disability; (2) she was qualified to perform the essential functions of the job; (3) the employer knew of the need for an accommodation; and (4) finally, the employer failed to make reasonable accommodations for her limitations. The Appellate Division also noted that where the employer could demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on operations, no accommodation is required.

The narrow issue presented to the Appellate Division was whether the teacher was required to prove that the district took an adverse employment action against her in order to proceed with her failure-to-accommodate claims under the law against discrimination. The Appellate Division first determined that the trial court should not have dismissed the matter because “the employee could demonstrate that the failure to accommodate forced the employee to soldier on without a reasonable accommodation” and there need not be proof of adverse employment action because the circumstances “cry out for a remedy.” The court concluded, “[she] ‘soldiered on’ by taking glucose tablets to maintain her blood sugar levels in order to teach. Sadly, her worst fears came to fruition when she fainted and seriously injured herself in front of her students. Hence, she should be allowed to present her claim for damages under the (Law Against Discrimination) at trial.”

The state Supreme Court held that an adverse employment action is not a required element in a failure to accommodate claim and remanded the matter to the trial court for trial.

More information about this matter can be found here. Board members may discuss this matter with the board attorney or may call the Legal, Labor Relations, and Policy department at (609) 278-5254.