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GAUL v. AT&T

February 18, 1997

DENNIS E. GAUL, Plaintiff,
v.
AT&T, INC., AT&T BELL LABORATORIES, INC., AT&T CONSUMER PRODUCTS, INC., JOHN DOES 1-100; ABC CORP., XYZ CORP., Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: FISHER

 FISHER, District Judge

 The present case is an action for failure to accommodate plaintiff's disability, in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 et seq. ("NJLAD"), and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. ยง 12101 et seq. ("ADA"). Plaintiff also asserts claims for breach of contract and breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The matter is now before the court on defendants' motion for summary judgment dismissing plaintiff's complaint in its entirety. For the following reasons, defendants' motion is granted.

 Dennis Gaul ("Gaul" or "Plaintiff") commenced employment with defendant, AT&T Corp. ("AT&T" or "Defendant"), in 1981 as a Technical Associate, and was later promoted to Senior Technical Associate. Gaul had been diagnosed as early as 1984 with depression-related illness, and has since been diagnosed over years with stress disorders and major depression. In 1986, Gaul suffered a nervous breakdown for which he was hospitalized, and which caused him to be absent from work for three months of the year. Gaul returned to work, and in 1988 received a two-step promotion to Member of Technical staff. However, in June of 1990, Gaul suffered another severe depression episode after he received an unfavorable performance review from his then-manager and was warned that his job was "in jeopardy." The relapse caused him to go out on a stress leave on June 28, 1990, after being diagnosed by the director of AT&T's Medical Department as suffering from depressive disorder.

 While out on disability leave, Gaul was contacted by Tang Jampathon, a supervisor from the Cordless Telephone Department. Jampathon was interested in having Gaul work on a project for which Gaul's skills were required. Gaul explained to Jampathon that he would be unable to handle a stressful work environment. Jampathon assured him that the people in the department were very supportive, and that "things [were] going to be okay." Jampathon Dep. at 33:5-12. While on disability leave, Gaul began seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Morris Reby, who authorized Gaul's return to work on a "limited basis" on September 4, 1990. Gaul asserts that when he returned to work, he repeatedly explained Dr. Reby's instructions that measures needed to be taken to attempt to curtail and respond to any workplace-related stress or conflicts that would be likely to aggravate his depression again.

 Gaul performed successfully upon returning to work. However, in December 1991, he was assigned to work with Donovan Folkes on the "International Project," also known as the "Herring Project." Almost from the outset, Gaul and Folkes had difficulty working together, resulting in a constant source of stress for Gaul. Gaul claims that Folkes began using information from Gaul's database and not sharing information with him, and that Folkes took credit for Gaul's ideas. Over the next nine months, Gaul contacted various people at AT&T concerning his difficulty in his new position with Folkes. He first attempted to resolve the problems with Folkes himself, but when these attempts were unsuccessful, he made Jampathon aware of his difficulties in February 1992. Gaul then also attempted to obtain help from Paul Newland, who served as team leader on the Herring Project. Gaul later spoke with Patricia Kaufman, an Ombudsperson at AT&T. Neither Newland nor Kaufman assisted Gaul with his difficulty.

 Beginning in May 1992, Edwin Muth replaced Jampathon, who had transferred to Singapore. Gaul asserts that he spoke with Muth about his problems in working with Folkes on numerous occasions between May and September. Gaul claims he specifically asked Muth to remove him from the project and to place him on a less stressful assignment. Between March and August, Gaul also met with Steven Bourne, the Department Head, on at least six occasions and requested that action be taken. The parties dispute whether Gaul expressly requested a transfer before August 1992. At that time, Gaul contacted Bourne and advised him that things were getting worse, and that he wouldn't be able to work under those conditions much longer. He told Bourne that he was going to have a nervous breakdown if he did not receive help. At that meeting, Gaul explicitly asked to be transferred off the project. Bourne did not give him an answer regarding the transfer at that time, although Muth asserts that he and Bourne had decided after the August meeting that Gaul would be reassigned. Gaul was not notified of any decision, however, and did not follow up on the request. Approximately two weeks after the meeting, on September 11, 1992, Gaul again went out on disability leave and has not returned to work. Gaul began collecting disability payments from AT&T's disability insurance plan and later collected benefits from the Social Security Administration, which determined that he became totally disabled on September 14, 1992.

 On September 9, 1994, Gaul filed a complaint against AT&T, alleging four causes of action. In the first count, Gaul alleges that he was handicapped within the meaning of the NJLAD, and that AT&T violated the NJLAD by failing to accommodate his alleged handicap. In the second count, Gaul alleges that AT&T violated public policy as embodied in the ADA by failing to accommodate his disability. In the third and fourth counts, respectively, Gaul alleges that AT&T breached a contract with him and breached an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Discovery has been taken, and AT&T now moves for summary judgment in its favor, dismissing plaintiff's complaint.

 Upon such affirmative showing, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to come forward with affidavits or other competent proof which sets forth specific facts showing that there is indeed a genuine issue of material fact for trial. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538, 106 S. Ct. 1348 (1986). The nonmoving party "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Id. at 586. A disputed fact is "'material' if it would affect the outcome of the suit as determined by the substantive law." Gray v. York Newspapers, Inc., 957 F.2d 1070, 1078 (3d Cir. 1992) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202, 106 S. Ct. 2505 (1986)). An issue of fact is "genuine" only "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. All evidence submitted must be viewed in a light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Gray, 957 F.2d at 1078.

 As a threshold matter, the defendant argues that Gaul has not demonstrated that he is handicapped or disabled within the meaning of the NJLAD or ADA, and therefore does not fall within the protection of those statutes. Taking all inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, this court initially concludes that plaintiff has satisfied his burden of demonstrating that there is at least a genuine issue of material fact as to whether he suffers from depression and anxiety disorders. Gaul has been diagnosed with depression-related illness and stress disorders for over ten years, including a diagnosis of depressive disorder by the director of AT&T's Medical Department. The defendant argues that Gaul cannot establish the fact of his alleged disability because New Jersey law requires expert testimony to prove that the employee is handicapped. The defendant cites Clowes v. Terminix International, Inc., 109 N.J. 575, 597, 538 A.2d 794 (1988), in which the New Jersey Supreme Court held that "expert medical testimony is required to establish the fact of the employee's [handicap]." AT&T states that because the plaintiff never identified any expert witnesses to the court or to the defendant, Gaul may not now put forth testimony to prove he was disabled.

 The court finds that Gaul has satisfied the requirement in Clowes with the testimony of treating physicians who have been previously identified. Clowes simply required that a plaintiff put forth competent medical evidence that he actually suffered from the ailment he claims is his disability. In that case, the plaintiff claimed he was disabled because he was an alcoholic, but he produced no evidence that he in fact suffered from alcoholism. This court does not find that the Clowes court intended to institute any formal requirement of "expert" testimony. It is well settled that treating physicians may testify as to any subject relevant to the evaluation and treatment of their patients. Stigliano v. Connaught Labs, 140 N.J. 305, 314, 658 A.2d 715 (1995); Ginsberg v. St. Michael's Hospital, 292 N.J. Super. 21, 678 A.2d 271 (App. Div. 1996). For the purposes of this motion, the testimony and documentary evidence by plaintiff's treating physicians, including that by defendant's own physicians, will be deemed sufficient to establish that Gaul does in fact suffer from stress and depressive disorders.

 
(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life ...

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