An Employer’s Duty to Reasonably Accommodate

The New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled that an employer, “may not escape liability under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) for failing to perform its duty to provide accommodation simply because it did not fire, demote or take another form of adverse action against the employee.” While this holding is limited to the New Jersey law, it highlights the duty of an employer to engage in the interactive process and provide reasonable accommodations to employees.

In the case, Richter v. Oakland Board of Education, a diabetic teacher claimed that school officials did not move her lunch period to an earlier time that she had requested to better manage her diabetic condition. The teacher alleged that this failure to accommodate caused her to have a seizure due to low blood sugar that resulted in a fall and “life-altering” injuries. The employer argued that the claim could not proceed because the employee did not allege that she suffered an adverse action, that is, that she was fired, demoted or that her salary was reduced.

The court looked to the legislative intent of the NJLAD and determined that the purpose of the law was to remove obstacles in the workplace for individuals with disabilities. To serve that purpose, the court stated that employers have an affirmative obligation, a duty, to make a reasonable accommodation when requested and that employers may be liable for its “inaction, silence, or inadequate response to a reasonable accommodation request.”

While limited to the NJLAD, the Americans with Disabilities Act has a similar foundation and this ruling emphasizes the importance for employers to respond to an employee’s request for an accommodation and engage in the interactive process to determine whether a reasonable accommodation can be made. Employers should be aware that the accommodation requests are often directed to managers and supervisors and it is essential that these personnel are trained to engage human resources or similar offices to assist in the process and respond appropriately.