Here’s the thing.
When a plaintiff asserts a disability discrimination claim against a current or former employer, one of the elements of the claim is establishing … wait for it … a disability. It’s critical.
Even in an employee-friendly state like New Jersey.
I read a New Jersey appellate court decision last night where the plaintiff claimed his disability motivated his former employer to deny him an accommodation and ultimately end his employment. At the trial court, the employer moved for summary judgment. Following oral argument, the motion court denied the motion and concluded there were genuine issues of material fact.
So, the employer moved for reconsideration, which the plaintiff opposed.
In a comprehensive written decision, the court concluded it had erred in denying the motion for summary judgment. The court recognized its prior decision was based on a “palpably incorrect and irrational basis.”
In its reconsideration decision, the court highlighted that the plaintiff was not disabled under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination and “has never been deemed disabled by a medical doctor.” The court also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that old age implies a disability — nice try, dude! — primarily when the plaintiff represented he was in “reasonably good health.”
So, the plaintiff appealed.
And the appellate court affirmed. Reaffirming the rule that a plaintiff alleging disability discrimination must establish that he has a disability with medical evidence if the disability is not readily apparent, the appellate court keyed in on the plaintiff’s deposition testimony. Specifically, the plaintiff testified, “I have not been disabled. And I told you that I’ve never been disabled.”
The appellate court also noted that just because the plaintiff was born in the mid-1950s didn’t make him disabled. And record did not contain any medical documentation or expert opinion establishing that the plaintiff suffered a disability.
Oh, hold up! I forgot about the plaintiff’s failure to accommodate (his nonexistent) disability claim. After all, New Jersey courts have consistently held that the NJLAD “requires an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee’s handicap.”
But here’s the thing. The New Jersey courts also recognize that a plaintiff seeking an accommodation must establish that he has a disability.
Here, the trial court found on reconsideration that the plaintiff presented no evidence he was disabled. Thus there was “no legal obligation to accommodate him.” And the appellate court agreed.
I’d offer you a “takeaway,” but sometimes, no amount of good HR compliance can avoid a baseless lawsuit.