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A teacher with diabetes who was injured after her blood sugar dropped at work may pursue her claims of disability discrimination against her employer.
In Richter v. Oakland Board of Education, a three-judge panel of the Supreme Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division unanimously reversed and remanded a decision holding that workers compensation was the exclusive remedy and precluded her from pursuing claims under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.
Teacher Mary Richter, a Type I diabetic, fainted while teaching due to low blood sugar levels when she was unable to eat lunch at an earlier class period, and said she sustained significant and permanent injuries as a result. She argued that the incident would not have occurred had the Oakland Board of Education granted her accommodation request to eat lunch earlier.
At the beginning of the 2012 school year, Ms. Richter’s assigned schedule had her lunch break after 1 p.m. on several days each week during seventh period. She told the district that the late meal would have a negative effect on her blood sugar levels and asked the principal to adjust her schedule so that her break would be during the fifth period. During the second quarter of the school year, her accommodation was granted, but the third quarter she was moved five days each week to the latest lunch block for teachers. She followed up with emails requesting a schedule change for her medical condition, but her request was not accommodated, and she ingested glucose tablets to maintain her blood sugar levels. On March 5, 2013, she suffered a hypoglycemic event in front of her students, causing her to faint and strike her head and face on a lab table and the floor, leading to extensive bleeding. She was transported to a hospital for treatment.
She said that after the fall, she suffered from loss of smell and taste, dental and facial trauma, insomnia, altered speech, pain in the neck and shoulder, post-concussion syndrome, vertigo and severe emotional distress. She filed a workers compensation claim and the board paid her nearly $19,000 for her medical bills, $97,00 for temporary disability benefits and $77,000 for the permanent injuries she suffered. She then sued the board and the principal of the school alleging disability discrimination in violation of New Jersey law. A motion judge dismissed her claim on the basis that she failed to show an adverse employment action to succeed with her failure to accommodate claim. Ms. Richter moved for reconsideration, which was denied. She appealed.
The New Jersey appellate court reversed and remanded the case. The court held that the motion judge erred in finding that she must present evidence that she suffered an adverse employment action, holding that her claim fell into an unusual situation where “there need not be proof of adverse employment action because the circumstances ‘cry out for a remedy.’”
Although the board argued that Ms. Richter’s failure to accommodate claim should be barred by the exclusive remedy of the act, and if not, then the board should receive 100% credit for the workers compensation payments it made were a jury to award in her favor, the appellate court disagreed.
The court noted that while the act does not allow an employee to pursue common law claims for work-related injuries, it does carve out an exception for intentional wrong. The court found that in the light most favorable to Ms. Richter, a jury could find that the board intentionally refused her accommodation request and aware that she could suffer a hypoglycemic event that could cause bodily injures as a result.
The appellate court also dismissed the board’s request for reimbursement for its workers compensation payouts if a jury awards monetary damages to Ms. Richter, but did hold that under New Jersey legal precedent, if the award to Ms. Richter is "equivalent to or greater than the liability of the employer from an award," the board will be allowed to keep two-thirds with the remaining going to Ms. Richter’s counsel for fees and costs not to exceed $750.
The attorney for the board declined to comment. The other attorneys in the case did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
A federal appeals court has reversed a lower court and reinstated an Americans with Disabilities Act charge filed by a terminated teacher against the San Diego Roman Catholic Archdiocese, ruling there is evidence to support her claim she was fired because the archdiocese regarded her as disabled.