Adverse Employment Action Not Required for Law Against Discrimination Claim

Richter v. Oakland Bd. of Educ., ___ N.J. ___ (2021). Justice LaVecchia wrote the opinion in this important Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”) case for a unanimous Court. There were two questions: whether the fact that the plaintiff teacher sought and obtained workers’ compensation benefits for the physical injuries that she suffered as a result of the alleged unlawful discrimination precluded her claim, by virtue of the “exclusive remedy provision” of the Workers Compensation Act (“WCA”), and whether she was barred from bringing an LAD claim because she was not subjected to an adverse employment action, such as demotion or termination.

On two separate defense motions for summary judgment, decided by two different Law Division judges, that court denied summary judgment on the first issue but granted it on the second one. The Appellate Division reversed that summary judgment in an opinion reported at 459 N.J. Super. 400 (App. Div. 2019). Defendant obtained Supreme Court review, and the Court unanimously affirmed after having solicited amicus briefs on the WCA issue presented.

These were the background facts. Plaintiff, a science teacher, had Type 1 diabetes. She was assigned a late lunch period, despite her expressed request that, due to her her diabetes, she should be assigned an earlier lunchtime. One day, near the end of the period that preceded her lunch, plaintiff suffered a hypoglycemic event in her classroom. She suffered a seizure, lost consciousness, and hit her head on a lab table as she fell to the floor, which caused severe bleeding. She filed a workers’ compensation claim and received compensation for her medical bills and disability benefits. Thereafter, she sued the Board under the LAD, asserting a claim of failure to accommodate her disability. There followed the summary judgment and Appellate Division proceedings described above.

On both issues, Justice LaVecchia built on prior rulings. On the issue of the need for an adverse employment action, she noted that in Victor v. State, 203 N.J. 383 (2010), the Court had “suggested in dicta that an adverse employment action may not be a necessary element for an LAD failure-to-accommodate claim.” Additionally, as the Appellate Division had noted in its opinion in this case, in Royster v. State Police, 227 N.J. 482 (2017), the Court had “articulated the elements required to establish a prima facie LAD failure-to-accommodate claim without including the requirement that an adverse employment action must be proven.” The same had occurred in Caraballo v. City of Jersey City Police Dep’t, 237 N.J. 255 (2019), Justice LaVecchia observed.

Those opinions, along with federal cases under parallel federal discrimination law that had not recited an adverse employment action as an element of a claim, led the Court to “close debate” and “formally hold that an adverse employment action is not a required element for a failure-to-accommodate claim.”

On the second issue, Justice LaVecchia began by noting that the schemes of both the LAD and the WCA are remedial in nature. After a lengthy analysis of both statutes, their history and purpose, and caselaw thereunder, she held that the WCA did not bar plaintiff’s lawsuit. Prior cases that had precluded suits under the WCA’s exclusive remedy provision involved common law claims, while the claim here was a statutory claim under the LAD. Additionally, the Legislature’s intent in enacting the LAD was to make that statute supplemental to other remedies.

In Schmidt v. Smith, 294 N.J. Super. 569 (App. Div. 1996), aff’d, 155 N.J. 44 (1998), the Appellate Division had said that the WCA was “not the exclusive remedy for sexual harassment” under the LAD. Justice LaVecchia “ma[d]e express Schmidt‘s import,” holding that “the WCA’s exclusive remedy provision does not attach to Richter’s LAD claim.” The LAD and WCA “fulfill different purposes, both protective of workers in the workplace. The statutes can function cumulatively and complementarily; they are not in tension, much less in conflict.”