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The Supreme Court of New Jersey on Monday ruled that a police detective can’t sue the police department for failure to accommodate based on anti-discrimination law after alleging his employer did not approve his knee surgery under workers compensation, an assertion the employer contested.
Frank Caraballo, a veteran detective with the City of Jersey City Police Department, in 1999 injured his hands, back, knees and legs in a vehicle accident while on duty. As his knee problems became chronic, he fluctuated between full duty, light duty and paid sick leave through the remainder of his tenure, and subsequently filed a workers compensation claim in 2001 but failed to pursue a necessary knee replacement surgery, according to documents in Frank Caraballo v. City of Jersey City Police Department and Thomas Comey, filed in a courthouse in Trenton.
In 2013, more than six-and-a-half years after he requested that the police department authorize knee replacement surgery, Mr. Caraballo settled his workers compensation claim — having “never called the doctor’s office to schedule a date for surgery,” documents state.
He then filed a complaint against the department asserting a cause of action under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, alleging that the police department “failed to authorize his knee replacement surgery and, therefore, failed to reasonably accommodate his disability,” documents state.
The department moved for summary judgment, arguing that Mr. Caraballo could not bring a failure-to-accommodate claim under anti-discrimination law “because he was unable to perform the essential functions of his job even with an accommodation.”
A trial court then granted the motion for summary judgment, disagreeing with Mr. Caraballo's contention "that the knee surgery itself qualifies as a reasonable accommodation" under the anti-discrimination law.
“The court found that even if the knee surgery could have qualified as a reasonable accommodation, the record contained several medical evaluations showing that Caraballo was unable to carry out the responsibilities of a police officer with or without the surgery. According to the court, Caraballo could not bring a successful failure-to-accommodate claim because his handicap ‘would pose a hazard to himself, fellow officers, and the public,’” documents state.
The trial court also found that Caraballo could not bring a viable anti-discrimination claim because he “failed to enforce his right to have knee surgery in the workers' compensation court,” among other reasons.
On appeal, Caraballo argued that the trial court erred, making "findings of fact on genuinely disputed issues" and "erroneous findings of fact that were not supported by the record," arguing that the judge erred in his interpretation and application of the state’s anti-discrimination law and failed to appreciate that knee surgery could qualify as a reasonable accommodation.
The state’s Appellate Division reversed, determining that the trial judge “erred in granting summary judgment because the record contained numerous material factual disputes — including why Caraballo retired without receiving knee surgery — that should have been presented to a jury.”
Monday’s unanimous decision reinstated the trial court’s summary judgment, using case law on the federal Americans with Disabilities Act that found reasonable accommodation does not include medical treatment: “we impose a duty on the employer to modify the work environment and remove workplace barriers in an ‘attempt to accommodate the physical disability of the employee,’ but we do not require the employer ‘to acquiesce to the disabled employee's requests for certain benefits or remuneration,’” the ruling states.
Attorneys involved and the employer could not immediately be reached for comment.
A maritime worker who injured his knee nearly 30 years ago can't be classified as temporarily disabled despite the prospect of surgery, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has ruled.