New Jersey Supreme Court Rules Nurse can Pursue Claim Based on Perceived Disability

On July 11, 2017, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that a nurse who claims she was fired from her job at a hospital because the hospital perceived her as disabled can pursue her legal claim against the hospital.

Plaintiff Maryanne Grande worked as a nurse for defendant Saint Clare’s Health System from 2000 to 2010, where she cared for patients who had had strokes. The job required Grande to lift patients, assist them in walking, and prevent them from falling. Starting in 2007, Grande suffered several injuries on the job, and had to take intermittent time off to recover. In 2010, Grande was cleared by her doctor to resume work with no restrictions, but the hospital also required Grande to be tested by its own doctors. The hospital’s doctors concluded that Grande could return to work with certain physical restrictions, but that it was “improbable” her injuries would “significantly affect her job performance ability.”

Saint Clare’s then fired Grande, stating that she was unable to perform the physical requirements of the job. Grande filed suit against Saint Clare’s, alleging discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”) for disability and perceived disability.

In 2013, the trial court dismissed the suit, holding that Saint Clare’s could terminate Grande because she could not fulfill the physical requirements of the job. In 2015, the Appellate Division reversed, holding that there were genuine issues of material fact that needed to be decided by a jury. This month, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed, stating that, "An employee who is perceived to have a disability is protected just as someone who actually has a disability. . .”

Writing for the Court, Justice Lee Solomon said, "An issue of fact exists as to whether Grande's periods of absence from work were sufficiently 'chronic and excessive' to preclude her from demonstrating that she was actually performing the job from which she was terminated . . . . The evidence that Grande presented a risk of injury to herself or patients is inadequate."

The NJLAD protects people from discriminatory treatment in a number of different contexts, including employment. The NJLAD protects employees from discrimination by employers based on based on race, creed, color, national origin, nationality, age, sex, pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, mental or physical disability, and perceived disability. If you believe you may have been discriminated against by your employer, contact us to discuss your options.

We will continue to monitor developments in this case.