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Raspa v. Office of the Sheriff of the County of Gloucester

A-0391-04T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2007) (Unpublished)

EMPLOYER-EMPLOYEE; ACCOMMODATIONS; HANDICAP —Under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination, an employer bears the burden of proof that an employee’s handicap precludes performance of essential job functions even with reasonable accommodation, such as to necessitate termination of the employee for that reason.

A corrections officer at a prison contracted an eye disease for which his doctor recommended job duties with minimal inmate contact. The sheriff’s department accommodated the officer for three years by allowing him to work in the main control room or the jail’s visiting area. The sheriff ultimately alleged that his operational needs required the officer perform tasks requiring regular inmate contact. Concluding that the officer could not perform that way, the sheriff filed an application for the officer for involuntary disability retirement on the basis that the officer was totally and permanently disabled from continuing his duties as a correction officer. The officer was not a party to any consideration of this application. Instead, he filed a complaint under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD) alleging that the sheriff had failed to reasonably accommodate his handicap and had wrongfully terminated his employment. A jury ultimately awarded damages to the officer. The sheriff appealed.

The Appellate Division specifically noted that under the LAD, when an employer maintains it reasonably concluded that its employee’s handicap precludes performance of the essential job functions even with reasonable accommodation, and then terminates the employee for that reason, the burden of proof is on the employer. The Court noted that the record demonstrated that officer was performing a job with minimum inmate contact satisfactorily, and that the officer never requested that a new position be created to accommodate his handicap, but rather sought continued assignments to an existing position. The Court was satisfied that evidence presented to the jury demonstrated that the existing position, though an accommodation, was not too burdensome to be continued by the sheriff.

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