Reasonable Accommodation of Disabilities: New Jersey Supreme Court Expands The Rights of Disabled Employees

Mary Richter was a science teacher employed by Oakland, New Jersey. She was also a diabetic.

At the start of the 2012-2013 school year, Richter received her schedule for the first marking period and learned that her lunch was scheduled for 1:05 p.m. Believing that late time in the day would negatively affect her blood sugar levels, Richter asked the school principal to adjust her schedule so she could eat lunch earlier in the day. Although the principal said he would “look into it” (and actually did adjust her schedule for the second marking period), when the third marking period came around, the principal again scheduled Richter to cover the late lunch period. And, even though Richter asked for that lunch schedule to be changed, the principal did not do so.

On March 5, 2013, near the end of the period right before her lunch, Richter suffered a hypoglycemic event in front of her students. She had a seizure, lost consciousness, and struck her head on a lab table and the floor, causing extensive bleeding. Richter was transported to a hospital for treatment. Prior to that, she had never passed out at work.

Richter filed suit against the School District, claiming that the principal’s failure to grant the accommodation she had requested—the adjustment of her scheduling for lunch—caused her injuries.

The case took several years to finally wind up before the New Jersey Supreme Court. In most reasonable accommodation cases before this one, the defendant employer— claiming for some reason that the requested accommodation wasn’t feasible—had proceeded to terminate the employee. In those cases, because the termination was considered an “adverse action,” the courts had held that the disabled employee who had been denied the accommodation (and lost his or her job) could bring suit.

But Mary Richter’s case was different: Her employer, the School District, hadn’t fired her or taken any other sort of “adverse action” against her. So, the issue before the New Jersey Supreme Court was this: When an employer denies an employee with a disability the accommodation she’s requested, but doesn’t take any sort of “adverse action” against her (other than just denying the requested accommodation), can that employee bring suit?

And, in a unanimous decision, issued on June 8th, 2021,the Court answered that question with a resounding “Yes,” holding that Ms. Richter could proceed with her case and take her claims before a jury.

While her case has yet to be tried (or possibly settled), the Supreme Court’s decision is a major victory for employees with disabilities, and it sends a message to employers: when a disabled employee asks for an accommodation, they better listen.

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