The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) requires that public entities such as boards of education work collaboratively with employees who suffer from certain disabilities to develop a reasonable plan to accommodate those disabilities in a way that does not disrupt the essential functions required of the position.
In Richter v. Oakland Bd. of Educ., a middle school teacher who suffered from diabetes claimed that while teaching in the classroom, she fainted due to low blood sugar levels and sustained substantial and permanent injuries. The teacher, Mary Richter, 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, Richter notified administration of her need to maintain her blood sugar levels by eating lunch earlier in the day. However, despite assenting to Richter’s request for a single marking period, administrators in the Bergen County district ultimately assigned her to teach morning classes and to lunch duty during the student lunch periods, thus delaying Richter’s lunch period until later in the school day.
In March 2013, while teaching sixth period and despite ingesting several glucose tablets in an attempt to maintain her blood sugar levels, Richter fainted in the classroom, which resulted in serious injuries, including extraction of her right front tooth; 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. Richter filed suit against the school district and against the building principal in his personal capacity.
The district and the principal objected to the complaint by offering several defenses, including the fact that Richter voluntarily continued to teach after her blood sugar dropped and that she suffered no adverse employment action attributable to either board or administrative action. At trial, the court agreed with the district and principal’s objections and dismissed Richter’s complaint because she could not demonstrate an adverse employment action stemming from the district’s refusal of her requested earlier lunch hour.
On appeal, the Appellate Division acknowledged the elements of a prima facie case of discrimination, that Richter proved membership in a protected class, in this case, an individual with a disability, or who is perceived as having a disability, as defined by statute. She demonstrated she was qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, or was performing those essential functions, either with or without a reasonable accommodation; that the employer knew of the need for an accommodation; and finally, that she proved that the employer failed to make reasonable accommodations for her limitations, unless the employer could demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on operations.
In this matter, the narrow issue Richter presented to the Appellate Division was whether she was required to prove the district took an adverse employment action against her. 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, “Richter ‘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 LAD at trial.”
Turning to the specific question of an adverse employment action, the Appellate Division determined that there is no “bright line test” for determining when an employer’s actions may be deemed adverse, noting that each matter must be decided on a “case-by-case basis.”
In analyzing the claim, the Appellate Division noted that under prior precedent, “[i]n order to constitute ‘adverse employment action'” for the purpose of the LAD, “retaliatory conduct must affect adversely the terms, conditions, or privileges of the plaintiff’s employment or limit, segregate or classify the plaintiff in a way which would tend to deprive her of employment opportunities or otherwise affect her status as an employee.”
Accordingly, the court held that Richter’s claim did not rise to the level of an adverse employment action as New Jersey courts have contemplated such claims under the LAD. Defendants’ actions did not materially alter the terms and conditions of her employment. Nor did they deprive her of any employment privileges or opportunities, or otherwise change her employment status.
Therefore, the court concluded by remanding the matter for trial on the failure to accommodate and other counts in the complaint, while dismissing the adverse employment and certain other counts with prejudice. For more information on this matter, board members may wish to consult with the board attorney or the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations Department by calling (609) 278-5254.