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Monday, November 18, 2019

NJ Supreme Court to Review Application of Exclusivity Rule Between Social Remedial Legislation Acts

The NJ Supreme Court will review two social remedial legislative acts to determine whether the Exclusivity Rule is applicable. The workplace legislation is the Law Against Discrimination [LAD] and the Workers’ Compensation Act [WCA]. The Court will determine whether a LAD claim is barred by the exclusive remedy of the WCA. Mary Richter, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Oakland Board of Education, C-234 Sept.Term 2019, 2019 WL 5847242, Petition for Certification Granted NOVEMBER 4, 2019

In the decision below the New Jersey Appellate Division held that the LAD claim was not barred by the WCA.


Plaintiff, who suffered from Type I diabetes, alleged that she fainted while teaching due to low blood sugar levels caused when she was unable to eat lunch during an earlier class period due to defendant's scheduling. Plaintiff suffered significant and permanent injuries. Plaintiff argued that her accident would not have occurred had defendant granted her request to eat lunch earlier. 

The trial court granted defendant's motion for summary judgment and denied plaintiff's cross-motion for summary judgment, ruling that plaintiff had failed to prove a prima facie case of failure to accommodate disability because she had not established an adverse employment action. The trial court therefore denied plaintiff's bodily injury claim as moot. 

On appeal, the court reversed the summary judgment dismissal of plaintiff's complaint. The court ruled that an employee was not required to establish an adverse employment action to prove a prima facie claim of failure to accommodate under the NJLAD. The court noted that disability discrimination claims were different from other kinds of discrimination claims and a failure to accommodate was often equated to a general unlawful employment practice. 

The appellate court held that a failure to accommodate claim could be viable if an employee demonstrated that the failure forced him or her "to soldier on without a reasonable accommodation." 

The court ruled that summary judgment was premature since there were genuine issues of material fact regarding whether plaintiff was provided with an accommodation for her disability and whether such accommodation was adequate. 

As to defendant's cross-appeal, which argued that the Workers' Compensation Act barred an employee's bodily injury claim, the court ruled that the act did not bar plaintiff's claim but that if plaintiff were to prevail at trial defendant could receive a credit for the amount of workers’ compensation benefits it had paid to plaintiff. In reaching its decision the appellate division stated that both the LAD and the WCA were social remedial pieces of legislation that mandated liberal interpretation and did not create a conflict that would invoke the Exclusivity Rule. The court reasoned that the employer's actions went beyond the bounds of an employer and what would be considered "simple fact of industrial life." Instead the employer's activity changed its status from a mere employer' action to an actionable tortfeasor.

The Appellate Court reasoned:

“Applying the Laidlow test to Richter's LAD bodily injury claim leads us to reason that her claim is not barred by the Compensation Act's exclusive remedy provision. Considering Richter's allegations in the light most favorable to her as the nonmoving party, Desiderio intentionally refused her accommodation request, and it was substantially certain that she could suffer a hypoglycemic event that could cause bodily injuries. This is not the “simple fact of industrial life” envisioned by the Compensation Act.

“Our conclusion is supported by our decision over twenty years ago in Schmidt v. Smith, 294 N.J. Super 569, 585, 684 A.2d 66 (1996), where we recognized ‘there is no language in the LAD that mandates that claims made by employees against employers under it may only be brought under the ’Compensation Act. Given the LAD is remedial social legislation, it should be liberally construed ‘in combination with other protection available under the laws of this state.’ Id. at 586, 684 A.2d 66 (citing N.J.S.A. 10:5-3); see also Royster, 227 N.J. at 500-01, 152 A.3d 900. Accordingly, Richter can present her bodily injury claims directly arising from her LAD claim to the jury.’”

Published Appellate Division Opinion, DOCKET NO. A-0102-17T2, Decided June 11, 2019.
Jon L. Gelman of Wayne NJ is the author of NJ Workers’ Compensation Law (West-Thomson-Reuters) and co-author of the national treatise, Modern Workers’ Compensation Law (West-Thomson-Reuters). For over 4 decades the Law Offices of Jon L Gelman 1.973.696.7900 has been representing injured workers and their families who have suffered occupational accidents and illnesses.

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