A recent New Jersey trial court decision reaffirmed the high burden for bringing a claim against an employer for hostile work environment. C.B, a teacher with lupus (an incurable inflammatory disease causing fatigue, joint pain, rash, and fever), brought claims against her school district under New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination (LAD). She relied on a series of grievances and incidents, many of which were unrelated to her illness. Both the New Jersey Division On Civil Rights and the Court agreed that the incidents simply did not create a hostile work environment, because of their distance in time and relatively innocuous nature.
C.B. is certified to teach elementary school and secondary social studies, and has been employed as a teacher since September 1998. In 2000-2001, she was diagnosed with lupus, making it difficult for her to climb stairs or be far from a restroom. From 2001 through 2009, she provided medical documentation that resulted in the school district accommodating her by moving the classroom to the first floor of the school.
Again, in 2008, C.B. requested an assistant and submitted medical documentation stating her stress and how condition would be relieved. The district again accommodated her by briefly providing an assistant for one academic year. In 2009, she was reassigned to teach 6th to 8th grade social studies on the 3rd floor, because she is bilingual, because many students spoke only Spanish. She again submitted medical documentation stating that she needed to be on the 1st floor and was moved to a new classroom there.
During this time, C.B. filed numerous grievances against her principal, many unrelated to her illness. For example, district policy required teachers to stay with their class of students during a fire drill. She walked away momentarily during one and was publicly chastised by the principal. Another incident involved the principal publicly directing C.B. to again provide medical documentation for her accommodation. But C.B.'s medical notes did not say that she needed to be near a restroom, or that she could not walk certain distances, or that she needed an assistant.
C.B. filed a complaint with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights on December 1, 2010, relying on the numerous unrelated-to-illness grievances. An Administrative Law Judge made an initial decision that the incidents did not amount to hostile work environment/harassment or retaliation. The final decision essentially agreed with the initial decision, but said that even though some incidents related to her disability, they weren't connected or severe enough to sustain a claim.
Then C.B. appealed, rejecting the fact that the Administrative Judge used the LAD's four-part test that sets the standard fairly high to establish a legal claim of hostile work environment. Simply put, the test requires that a person show that they were discriminated against based on and because of being in a particular class (e.g. disability) and thereby his or her employment conditions are hostile or abusive.
The fact is that an employer does not have to accommodate every request made by an employee with a medical condition. It only has to initiate a good faith "interactive process" that involves the employee and employer communicating about the disability. The employer must then make a good faith effort to assist the employee with reasonable accommodations. The court that heard the appeal agreed with the previous decisions and noted the following:
C.B. always remained a teacher in good standing
Her job responsibilities never changed
She was never transferred or received a disadvantageous assignment
She suffered no loss of pay or benefits
She always remained on the 1st floor of the school
Her work performance was not affected
She received favorable evaluations and salary increment
The district engaged in the interactive good faith process and provided her with reasonable accommodations
This case is a good lesson for both employers and employees in dealing with LAD claims. Evan Xavier Bakhet is a J.D. Candidate at Rutgers School of Law-Newark with a scheduled graduation date in 2017. He collaborated with me on this blog.