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By: Cailin Bernazoli, JD Candidate, with assistance of Stephen McNally, Esquire and Paige M. Bellino, Esquire

Recently, two unpublished Appellate Division decisions, Beneduci v. Graham Curtin, P.A and Guzman v. M. Teixeira Int’l Inc., addressed the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) that may impact both New Jersey employers and employees.  The Beneduci Decision addressed the LAD in the context of a law firm merger and the Guzman Decision addressed the LAD based on a perceived disability.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJ LAD), enacted in 1945, is one of the most protective anti-discrimination laws in the country as it is an embodiment of our Legislature’s intent to abolish discrimination in the workplace.[1] According to the LAD: “It shall be an unlawful employment practice, or, as the case may be, an unlawful discrimination . . . [f]or an employer, because of . . . disability . . . of any individual . . . to refuse to hire or employ or to bar or to discharge . . . from employment such individual or to discriminate against such individual in compensation or in terms, conditions or privileges of employment[.]”[2]

The Beneduci Case

In Beneduci, the Appellate Division reversed and remanded to the Trial Court to determine whether the defendants based their hiring decision on the plaintiff’s disability leave, thus violating the NJ LAD. The Plaintiff, Rosemary Beneduci, was an employee of the law firm, Graham Curtin, for almost thirty years when, at the age of sixty-six, she took a disability leave for knee surgery from March 2017 to May 2017. About a month later, she took a second leave due to problems with her other knee, leading to knee replacement surgery on January 31, 2018.

While the Plaintiff was on disability leave recuperating from surgery, Graham Curtin began the process of closing the firm. An agreement was reached between Graham Curtin and the law firm, McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter (“McElroy”), as part of which specific Graham Curtin’s attorneys and support staff, recommended by Graham Curtin’s managing partner, would join McElroy, except for those who chose to form their own firm. Graham Curtain’s managing partner joined McElroy as a partner and recommended all interested and available employees with the exception of Ms. Beneduci.

Prior to the closing of Graham Curtin, the managing partner expressed that to Plaintiff that her employment was in a “precarious situation”. The managing partner also expressed that Ms. Beneduci’s disability leave “certainly played a factor” in their decision and “finding a position that didn’t exist for somebody that hasn’t worked for us for a year was not at the top of my agenda”. On February 15, 2018, the Plaintiff emailed the managing partner confirming her return to work, however, following the email, the Plaintiff was invited to lunch by the managing partner and was offered a severance package for terminating her employment. The Plaintiff, through her attorney, rejected the severance package and instituted this claim against Graham Curtin, the managing partner, and McElroy.

The trial court granted summary judgment to Graham Curtin and the managing partner, finding that there were no material facts in dispute, and that the Defendants owed no duty to the Plaintiff to secure her employment with McElroy. The trial court also granted summary judgment to McElroy as the court determined that there was no evidence showing that Ms. Beneduci applied for a position at McElroy, or that McElroy knew of her existence.

On appeal, the Plaintiff argued that the trial court erred by construing the LAD too narrowly. The Appellate Division agreed stating that “[c]onsidering the myriad of unique situations that can arise from an employment discrimination dispute, our Supreme Court has recognized the need to allow plaintiffs in LAD cases to present “novel arguments.””[3] However, these uncommon theories require the “utmost care and attention”[4] to pursue the Legislature’s goal of workplace equality.

The Appellate Division reversed the summary judgment granted to Graham Curtin and the managing partner, holding that the trial court incorrectly failed to determine whether the Plaintiff’s allegations, taken as true, could establish that the defendants violated the LAD by denying her employment at McElroy due to her age, disability, or use of disability. The Appellate Division concluded the allegations could establish a LAD violation given the managing partner’s comments and the fact that she was the only interested and available employee who was not brought over to McElroy.

The Appellate Division held that the trial court also erred in granting summary judgment to McElroy because the Plaintiff did not apply for a job at McElroy, as the proper inquiry should have been whether the Plaintiff was denied employment at McElroy because of her disability leave and whether the managing partner acted as McElroy’s agent. The takeaway from the Beneduci case is that LAD concerns are not left behind when a company moves on and merges with another practice.  Like all aspects of a merger, LAD concerns should be taken into consideration when coordinating the transition.

The Guzman Case

Guzman involved a claim under LAD for discrimination based upon a perceived disability – specifically, Plaintiff was suffering from COVID-19.  The Plaintiff, Uriel Guzman, worked as a machine operator for the company, when on or about July 23, 2020, the Plaintiff came to work feeling “cold, clammy, and weak”. The Plaintiff finished his shift but was told not to return to work until he took a COVID-19 test. The next day, the Plaintiff went to a clinic where he was tested for COVID-19. While waiting for the results, the Plaintiff kept in contact with his employer, began to feel better, and offered to return to work while maintaining social distance from others. However, before the Plaintiff received his results, his employment was terminated on July 29, 2020. The Plaintiff filed an action alleging that the Defendant had “perceived [him] as suffering from COVID-19” when they fired him and thus, the Defendant was liable “for perception of disability discrimination in violation of the LAD”. The Defendant moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to R. 4:6-2(e) for failing to plead of cause of action under the LAD. The Law Division granted their motion and dismissed the complaint without prejudice, finding that “COVID-19 is a disease”, not a disability under the LAD.

The Plaintiff filed an amended complaint on May 21, 2021, including new general allegations about COVID-19, as well as introducing that the Defendant had claimed that he would have given the Plaintiff two weeks’ notice, but since the Plaintiff could not produce a negative COVID-19 test, the Plaintiff could not return to work. The Law Division dismissed the amended complaint with prejudice as the judge ruled, “[I]n order for there to be a perception of a disability there has to be a disability . . . I am satisfied that every disease, however serious it can be for some people, . . . does not become a disability as that is defined in the [LAD].”

On appeal, the Plaintiff argued that the judge erred in determining that COVID-19 was a disease, not a disability and in failing to find the Plaintiff had set forth sufficient facts to state a claim. The Appellate Division upheld the Trial Court decision finding that the plaintiff had failed to plead a viable cause of action under the LAD.  Specifically, the Appellate Division explained that the initial inquiry in a LAD case is whether the plaintiff is a member of a protected class as defined by statute.[5] Under LAD, there are two specific categories of disability: physical and non-physical.[6] As the Plaintiff alleged a physical disability, the Plaintiff was required to  show that he was “(1) suffering from physical disability, infirmity, malformation or disfigurement (2) which is caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness including epilepsy.”[7]

The Appellate Division opined that not every illness will constitute a disability under the LAD; however, it did recognize that the term “disability” in the LAD “is not restricted to ‘severe’ or ‘immutable’ disabilities,”[8] or to “[disabling] condition[s that] result in substantial limitation of a major life activity,”[9] and that courts “adhere to a broad interpretation of the [LAD] as it applies to the physically [disabled].”[10] The Court must also consider the NJ Supreme Court’s directive that the LAD “must be sensibly and practically applied . . . [and] construed ‘fairly and justly with due regard to the interests of all parties.”[11]

Applying these standards, the Appellate Division found that the Plaintiff had been terminated after he had reported to the Defendant that he was feeling better and could return to work. Thus, the Appellate Division affirmed the Law Division’s decision, holding that the facts did not support the claim that the Plaintiff qualified as an individual with a disability or perceived disability, or that he was terminated due to a perceived disability.

These decisions provide valuable insight to employers and employees alike, as to the factors the New Jersey Courts consider when contemplating a purported violation of the LAD based on either a disability or perceived disability claim.

If you would like to learn more about the legal implications of the Beneduciand/or Guzman cases, and/or should you require assistance with LAD claims in the wake of the Appellate Division’s recent decisions, our professionals stand ready to provide assistance and guidance.

[1] Fuchilla v. Layman, 109 N.J. 319, 334 (1988).

[2] N.J.S.A. 10:5-12(a).

[3] Quinlan v. Curtiss-Wright Corp., 204 N.J. 239, 260 (2010).

[4] Id.

[5] Victor v. State, 203 N.J. 383, 409-10 (2010).

[6] N.J.S.A. 10:5-5(q).

[7] Viscik v. Fowler Equip. Co., 173 N.J. 1, 15 (2002).

[8] Viscik, 173 N.J. at 16 (quoting the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1)(A)).

[9] Tynan v. Vicinage 13 of the Superior Ct., 351 N.J. Super. 385, 398 (App. Div. 2002).

[10] Andersen v. Exxon Co., 89 N.J. 483, 496 (1982).

[11] Id.

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