Yesterday, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued its most definitive decision to date on the issue of reasonable accommodation of disabled employees under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD). In Raspa v. Office of the Sheriff of the County of Gloucester, A-53-06 (June 12, 2007), the Court held that: (1) if the employee cannot perform the essential functions of the position he seeks or holds, the employer may lawfully terminate his employment; (2) the employer is not obligated to create a new position for an employee as a reasonable accommodation, nor to maintain an employee on permanent light duty; and (3) even where an employer has allowed an employee to be on light duty for an extended period of time, such action does not create an obligation to maintain the light duty assignment indefinitely.
Michael Raspa, Jr. was employed as a corrections officer by the Gloucester County Sheriff. He had worked in that position for many years without incident until 1997, when he was diagnosed with Graves’ Disease, which is a hyperactive thyroid. One of the results was double vision and worsening eyesight. In 1999, Raspa’s physician issued a note stating that Raspa’s eyesight would worsen due to radiation treatments, and requesting that he not supervise inmates. Several of the essential functions of the corrections officer position require close contact with, and supervision of, inmates. Nevertheless, the Sheriff’s Office complied with the physician’s request and assigned him to light duty positions that involved no inmate contact. Raspa continued in this light duty status until 2002, despite a Sheriff’s Office policy that light duty for those suffering from disabilities not caused by on-the-job injuries would be limited to 30 days.
In 2002, in response to the Sheriff’s Office’s request, Raspa’s physician issued another note, reiterating that Raspa should have minimal contact with inmates, and requesting that light duty be continued. At this point, the Sheriff concluded that it would enforce its temporal limitation on light duty assignments, and Raspa’s employment was terminated in conjunction with an application on his behalf for disability retirement benefits. Raspa sued, and a jury found in his favor, awarding him approximately $273,000.
In reversing, the New Jersey Supreme Court noted that, while the LAD’s reach is broad, it is not unlimited. The operative language of the statute allows the employer to take action if “the nature and extent of the disability reasonably precludes the performance of the particular employment” and permits “the establishment and maintenance of bona fide occupational qualifications.” The Sheriff’s Office thus could lawfully terminate Raspa if he could not perform the essential functions of the job. In determining what functions are essential, the Court relied heavily on the written job description, which listed several examples of duties requiring close contact with inmates. Since Raspa admitted he could not perform those functions, the conclusion was “inescapable” that he could not perform the job of corrections officer.
The Court then turned to Raspa’s argument that because the Sheriff’s Office had kept him on light duty for three years, it could continue doing so indefinitely. Citing a line of federal cases and lower state court decisions, the Court noted that light duty positions were intended to be a bridge between inability to work due to injury and a return to full employment status: “they are intended as a shield to protect the temporarily disabled, and not as a sword by which a person who is otherwise unqualified for the position can demand a permanent posting.” Thus, the Court continued, “the availability of light duty assignments for temporarily disabled employees does not give rise to any additional obligations on the part of the employer to assign indefinitely a permanently disabled employee to an otherwise restricted light duty assignment.”
The Raspa decision reaffirms the employer’s right to hold employees, even those claiming a disability, to qualification and performance standards. It also demonstrates the importance of preparing and maintaining written job descriptions that identify the essential functions of the job. The Court’s decision was based substantially on the written job descriptions; in fact, the two justices who dissented from the majority decision did so because there was evidence that some corrections officers did not have inmate contact. This decision should remind employers to review their existing job descriptions – and to prepare them where they do not exist – to ensure that they clearly and accurately describe the qualifications for, and essential functions of, each job.
The Supreme Court’s ruling also can be read to hold that an employer is not obligated to provide light duty at all where the employee is unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job. Indeed, the Court noted and approved of the Sheriff’s Office’s policy of providing preference for light duty assignments to those whose disability was caused by on-the-job injuries, and imposing a hard and fast 30-day rule on light duty for other disabilities. The Court quoted with approval a lower court decision that held “the phrase ‘reasonable accommodation’ refers to the duty of an employer to attempt to accommodate the physical disability of the employee, not a duty to acquiesce to the disabled employee’s requests for certain benefits or remuneration.”
Finally, the Supreme Court’s decision reiterates that employers should not be penalized when they have gone above and beyond their legal obligations, by offering accommodations that are more than reasonable. Noting that many employers seek to retain disabled employees in either modified or different job postings, the Court wrote: “We laud those efforts, and nothing in this opinion should be read to discourage them or to permit them to be turned against an employer.”
Should you have any questions about the impact of this ruling, please contact the Ogletree Deakins attorney with whom you normally work or the Client Services Department at 866-287-2576 or via e-mail at email@example.com.
Note: This article was published in the June 13, 2007 issue of the New Jersey eAuthority.