TRENTON – Acting Attorney General Andrew J. Bruck announced today that the Division on Civil Rights (DCR) has found probable cause against two employers in disability-discrimination cases. Both cases involve allegations that employers discriminated against employees on the basis of disability, as well as leave time taken in connection with their disabilities.
In one case, DCR found probable cause against the Mansfield Township School District in Burlington County for allegedly violating New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD) by denying a disability accommodation for a fifth-grade science teacher who had returned to work after taking leave to undergo cancer treatment. DCR did not find probable cause, however, regarding the 57-year-old teacher’s claim of discrimination on the basis of age.
In the other case, DCR found probable cause against Laurel Brook Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center, a subacute rehabilitative center and skilled nursing facility in Mount Laurel. Laurel Brook is accused of violating the LAD by firing one of its longtime cooks after she took extended leave — first to deal with depression, and subsequently to undergo lung surgery.
“We are committed to protecting the right of all New Jersey workers to an inclusive and discrimination-free workplace,” said Acting Attorney General Bruck. “Our Division on Civil Rights takes every discrimination complaint seriously, and will hold accountable employers who violate the law.”
“The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination requires employers to provide a reasonable accommodation to employees with a disability,” said DCR Deputy Director Rosemary DiSavino. “These cases serve as a reminder both that leave may constitute a reasonable accommodation, even when an extension of leave is needed because of multiple disabilities, and that an employee with a disability may require a workplace accommodation once they return to work.”
A Finding of Probable Cause does not represent final adjudication of a case. Rather, it means DCR has concluded its preliminary investigation and determined there is sufficient evidence to support a reasonable suspicion the LAD has been violated.
Mansfield School District
In this case, DCR found probable cause to support allegations by the complainant, a longtime elementary school science teacher, that the Mansfield School District denied her a reasonable accommodation for her disability and discriminated against her “based on disability and/or in retaliation for taking medical leave for her cancer treatment.”
In November 2019 the teacher, who had taught only science to fifth-grade students for most of the past decade, took a medical leave of absence to undergo treatment for Stage 3 ovarian cancer.
Upon her return to work in 2020, the teacher was informed she was being reassigned for the upcoming 2020-2021 school year to teach fourth-grade, where she would be required to teach four subjects (math, language arts, social studies and science) instead of one.
The Law Against Discrimination requires an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability, so long as doing so would not impose an undue burden on the employer’s operations. It also prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee for requesting or utilizing a reasonable accommodation, including a leave of absence.
Upon learning of her reassignment, the teacher asked to remain in her role as a fifth-grade science teacher, explaining that her reassignment would be incompatible with her disability, and potentially harmful to her recovery from cancer.
Specifically, the teacher cited the stress of learning to teach three new subjects at a new grade level, and noted that her new fourth-grade classroom assignment would place her farther away from a faculty restroom. She explained that the restroom access issue was of concern due to unresolved complications from her surgery.
To support her request, the teacher submitted notes from three different medical providers, including her oncologist’s office, family physician’s office and surgeon’s office. All three medical notes advised that the stress of her reassignment had the potential to impact her recovery from cancer. The surgeon’s office note also advised that her condition required “close proximity to a restroom.”
Despite the woman’s condition and supporting medical provider notes, Mansfield schools declined to reconsider the teacher’s reassignment for the 2020-21 school year. The teacher filed her complaint with DCR on October 6, 2020, alleging in part that Mansfield Schools removed her from her fifth-grade teaching position and reassigned her to the fourth grade because of her disability and/or because she was returning from using a medical leave, and put, a less-qualified teacher without a disability, in the fifth grade in her place.
During DCR’s investigation, Mansfield School District officials noted that they provided additional classroom support to the reassigned teacher in the form of mentors and co-teachers. They also denied that the teacher’s reassignment was an adverse employment action, calling it a lateral transfer that did not result in a material change to the complainant’s salary, benefits or status.
The school district also claimed that the complainant was best qualified to fill a fourth-grade teaching vacancy created by the move of another teacher to an administrative position.
Notwithstanding the school district’s claims, the Partial Finding of Probable Cause announced today found that administrators had multiple alternatives to reassigning the cancer-stricken teacher from her long-held fifth-grade science teaching spot to a new grade level.
The Partial Finding of Probable Cause also notes that transitioning to an unfamiliar assignment after having undergone surgery and months of chemotherapy for an advanced form of cancer had in fact caused the reassigned teacher “a great deal of stress and negatively impacted her health.”
In addition, the finding document observes that the complainant’s new classroom assignment “still required her to walk several hundred feet to the closest restroom – a significant distance for one with urinary issues or bladder weakness.”
Based on DCR’s preliminary investigation, the Partial Finding of Probable Cause states, it appears the Mansfield School District “failed to adequately accommodate Complainant’s medically-supported needs for a low-stress return to teaching due to the fragile state of her recovery, and for a classroom in close proximity to a restroom due to the after effects of her treatment.”
In this case DCR found probable cause to support the complainant’s allegations that Laurel Brook unlawfully fired a longtime employee after the worker took nearly six months off to deal first with depression and then with surgery to remove a growth from her lung.
In her DCR complaint, the worker alleged that her firing after nearly eight years as a cook at Laurel Brook amounted to refusal by the facility to provide a reasonable accommodation for her disabilities.
According to the complainant, Laurel Brook verbally approved her request to take medical leave for a period of months to address “major depression,” and subsequently approved an extension of her leave to accommodate having a hamartoma removed from her lung. (Laurel Brook denies ever having provided leave approval.)
Upon contacting Laurel Brook about returning to work months later, the worker told DCR, she was advised there was no longer a job for her because she had failed to submit the paperwork required to document her need for medical leave.
Specifically, the woman was told her leave had not been approved and that she was therefore considered “resigned” after declining to submit forms required under the Federal Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
In its investigation, DCR determined the fired worker did, in fact, fail to fill out FMLA paperwork. The apparent reason was that the woman was confused by having already filled out separate paperwork required to claim temporary state disability benefits through Standard Benefit Administrators – a private, contracted insurance carrier that processes disability claims for client companies.
In issuing a Finding of Probable Cause, however, DCR noted that the worker’s failure to recognize a distinction between the disability paperwork she’d already completed and her need to fill out separate FMLA paperwork was “ultimately immaterial” and did not relieve Laurel Brook of its obligations under the New Jersey LAD.
DCR’s investigation included a review of multiple documents – including reports written by mental health providers and letters written by the worker’s thoracic surgeon – that were either submitted to Laurel Brook, or sent to Standard Benefit Administrators and copied to Laurel Brook officials.
These documents provided Laurel Brook “a stream of information” about the woman’s disabilities that evidenced her medical need to take leave, the Finding of Probable Cause notes, and triggered Laurel Brook’s obligation under the LAD to “enter into an interactive process to determine whether and how the employee may be reasonably accommodated.”
To view a Fact Sheet on disability discrimination and the rights of people with disabilities in employment, housing, education, etc., under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination go to: https://www.nj.gov/lps/dcr/downloads/fact-Disability-Discrimination.pdf
People with disabilities who believe their rights under the LAD have been violated can file a complaint with DCR by visiting https://bias.njcivilrights.gov/ or calling 1-833-NJDCR4U (833-653-2748).
DCR is the state agency responsible for preventing and eliminating discrimination and bias-based harassment in employment, housing, and places of public accommodation (e.g., places open to the public like schools, businesses, hospitals, etc.) by enforcing the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), the New Jersey Family Leave Act, and the Fair Chance in Housing Act.