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Raspa v. Office of the Sheriff of the County of Gloucester

June 12, 2007

MICHAEL J. RASPA, JR., PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
OFFICE OF THE SHERIFF OF THE COUNTY OF GLOUCESTER, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

SYLLABUS

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

This appeal requires that the Court address the threshold question of whether, as a matter of law, an employee can prosecute a claim alleging that his employer failed to accommodate the employee's disability in violation of the Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49, when the employee's permanent disability renders him unable to discharge essential functions of the position in which he was employed.

On July 9, 1984, plaintiff Michael J. Raspa, Jr., was hired by defendant, the Sheriff of Gloucester County (Sheriff), as a corrections officer. Raspa discharged his employment duties withoutincident until October 1997, when he was diagnosed with a hyperactive thyroid, or Graves' disease. As a corollary, Raspa developed Graves' ophthalmopathy, a condition resulting in bulging eyes and possible double vision. Presently, there is no cure for either of these conditions, but they can be managed by medications or surgery. In1999, Raspa's then treating physician issued a doctor's note stating that she expected that Raspa's eye symptoms would "worsen" as a result of his daily radiation treatment, and "request[ing] he not supervise inmates." Consequently, Raspa was placed on "restricted duty status" and was reassigned to light duty positions not involving contact with inmates.

Four months later, the Sheriff issued a general order, in part limiting to thirty days any light duty assignment for someone who was not injured on the job, and giving preference to and priority for the few available light duty assignments to those who had been injured on the job. Despite the temporal limitation on light duty assignments contained in the general order, Raspa continued in inmate-contact-restricted assignments until January 2002. Following some medical updates, the Sheriff requested that Raspa be placed on disability retirement, reasoning that Raspa could no longer beaccommodated and that the Sheriff's Department could not "guarantee this type of 'no contact' policy." Raspa was then informed that he was to be placed on disability retirement status effective July 1, 2002. The involuntary application for Raspa's disability retirement ultimately was approved by the Board of Trustees of the Police and Firemen's Retirement System (PFRS). At the time of his involuntary disability retirement, Raspa had been employed as a corrections officer for eighteen years.

Raspa neither participated in the application process for involuntary disability retirement benefits, nor did he grieve that employment action. Instead, he filed suit alleging that the Sheriff had violated the LAD by failing to reasonably accommodate his disability. The jury found in Raspa's favor and awarded economic damages in the amount of $236,000 and future economic damages in an amount to be ascertained by the trial court. The trial court later, among other things, reversed the jury's award of future economic damages, but awarded Raspa his attorney's fees and costs, and entered an aggregate judgment in favor of Raspa in the amount of $273,000.

The Sheriff appealed, raising nine separate issues. The Appellate Division, in an unpublished opinion, affirmed the trial court in all respects. The panel ultimately concluded that "[s]ufficient evidence was presented to the jury for it to reasonably conclude that [plaintiff] adequately performed the essential functions of a Corrections Officer in an existing position, which appropriately accommodated [plaintiff's] handicap, and to find that the proposed accommodation would not be too burdensome to [defendant]."

The Supreme Court granted the Sheriff's petition for certification.

HELD: An employee must possess the bona fide occupational qualifications for the job position that employee seeks to occupy in order to trigger an employer's obligation to reasonably accommodate the employee to the extent required by the Law Against Discrimination (LAD). An employer may reasonably limit light duty assignments to those employees whose disabilities are temporary, and the availability of light duty assignments for temporarily disabled employees does not give rise to any additional duty on the part of the employer to assign a permanently disabled employee indefinitely to an otherwise restricted light duty assignment.

1. The standard the Court applies to the review of issues of law -- the de novo review of the trial court's conclusions of law -- is the standard by which the Court gauges the vitality of Raspa's claim. The Court reaffirms this State's public policy of abolishing discrimination in the work place. The "eradication of the cancer of discrimination" is the overarching goal of the LAD. That said, the LAD's reach, although broad, is not without limitation. It forbids "any unlawful discrimination against any person because such person is or has been at any time disabled or any unlawful employment practiceagainst such person, unless the nature and extent of the disability reasonably precludes the performance of the particular employment." N.J.S.A. 10:5-4.1 (emphasis supplied). (Pp. 12-16)

2. The specifications for a county corrections officer have been defined by the New Jersey Department of Personnel (NJDOP). Among the examples of work of a county corrections officer listed by NJDOP are several that require close inmate contact. Tellingly, in the "medical examination" portion of this job specification, it explains that "[a]ny medical or physical condition or defect which would prevent efficient performance of duties of the position, cause the appointee to be a hazard to himself/herself or others, or become aggravated as a result of performance of these duties, will be cause for rejection" and that the "[f]ailure to demonstrate sufficient capacity to perform duties of this position may be cause for rejection." Raspa admitted that he knew that NJDOP's description of the position of county corrections officer was controlling and that having contact with inmates was an essential function of the job. He also conceded that, given the medical limitations placed on him, he simply was unable to perfor any of the essential functions that involved contact with inmates. Further, the proofs demonstrated that no objectively viable and reasonable accommodation would ever make Raspa qualified to perform the functions he admitted were essential to the position of a county corrections officer. The conclusion to which those admissions, concessions and proofs lead is inescapable: plaintiff's "disability reasonably preclude[d] the performance of the particular employment [of a county corrections officer]," N.J.S.A. 10:5-4.1. Thus, plaintiff, as a matter of law, was not qualified as a "county corrections officer." Hence, plaintiff's asserted "accommodation" -- providing plaintiff an indefinite light duty posting with no inmate contact -- was not "reasonable" under the LAD. (Pp. 16-18)

3. The LAD does not require that an employer create an indefinite light duty position for a permanently disabled employee if the employee's disability, absent a reasonable accommodation, renders him otherwise unqualified for a full-time position. Thus, consistent with the LAD, an employer may reasonably limit light duty assignments to those employees whose disabilities are both temporary and not inconsistent with the duties of the light duty assignment, and, conversely, the availability of light duty assignments for temporarily disabled employees does not give rise to any additional obligation on the part of the employer to assign indefinitely a permanently disabled employee to an otherwise restricted light duty assignment. An employer may, consistent with the LAD, terminate the employment of an employee who, after consideration of available reasonable accommodations, nevertheless is no longer able to perform the essential functions of his job. However, the employer is not obliged to do so and the Court lauds efforts by employers to retain disabled employees in either modified or different job postings. Nothing in this opinion should be read to discourage those efforts or to permit them to be turned against an employer. (Pp. 18-21)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the Law Division with instructions to enter judgment in favor of defendant.

JUSTICE LONG filed a separate, DISSENTING opinion, in which CHIEF JUSTICE ZAZZALI joins, stating, in part, that there was evidence to support the jury's conclusion that inmate contact was not an essential part of the job of a corrections officer.

JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN and HOENS join in JUSTICE RIVERA-SOTO's opinion. JUSTICE LONG filed a separate, dissenting opinion, in which CHIEF JUSTICE ZAZZALI joins. JUSTICE WALLACE did not participate.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Rivera-soto

Argued February 13, 2007

This appeal requires that we address the threshold question of whether, as a matter of law, an employee can prosecute a claim alleging that his employer failed to accommodate the employee's disability in violation of the Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49 (LAD), when the employee's permanent disability renders him unable to discharge essential functions of the position in which he was employed. In this case, a county corrections officer developed a disabling disease that, in his doctor's words, required that the corrections officer "be in an environment with minimum to no contact with prison inmates to insure minimum risk [to the corrections officer.]" After placing the corrections officer in several temporary light duty assignments over a three-year period, the county sheriff's office determined that it could not continue to extend light duty work to the permanently disabled corrections officer and processed his involuntary disability retirement.

We hold that an employee must possess the bona fide occupational qualifications for the job position that employee seeks to occupy in order to trigger an employer's obligation to reasonably accommodate the employee to the extent required by the LAD. In that context, we further hold that an employer may reasonably limit light duty assignments to those employees whose disabilities are temporary, and that the availability of light duty assignments for temporarily disabled employees does not give rise to any additional duty on the part of the employer to assign a permanently disabled employee indefinitely to an otherwise restricted light duty assignment.

I.

On July 9, 1984, plaintiff Michael J. Raspa, Jr. was hired by defendant, the Sheriff of Gloucester County, as a corrections officer assigned to the Gloucester County Jail in Woodbury, New Jersey. Plaintiff discharged his employment duties without incident until October 1997, when he was diagnosed with a hyperactive thyroid, or Graves' disease.*fn1 In order to limit his thyroid functions, plaintiff was treated with radioactive iodine. As a corollary, plaintiff also developed Graves' ophthalmopathy, a condition resulting in bulging eyes and possible double vision.*fn2 There is no treatment to stop the immune system from producing the antibodies that cause Graves' disease or its corollary, Graves' ophthalmopathy; that is, there presently is no cure. However, Graves' disease can be managed by either decreasing the production of, or blocking the action of, the hormone thyroxine. Similarly, the symptoms of Graves' ophthalmopathy can be managed by medications or surgery.

Plaintiff continued discharging his regular and usual duties as a corrections officer until February 1999 when, due to his degenerating Graves' ophthalmopathy, plaintiff's then-treating physician issued a doctor's note stating that she expected that plaintiff's eye symptoms would "worsen" as a result of his daily radiation treatments, and "request[ing] he not supervise inmates." Complying with this request, defendant placed plaintiff on "restricted duty status" and reassigned him to light duty positions at several locations and with different functions within the county jail system. Each of these light duty positions had a common denominator: they involved no immediate contact with inmates.

Four months later, in June 1999, defendant issued a general order addressing who would be eligible for assignment to those light duty positions. Distinguishing between corrections officers who had been injured on the job and those, like plaintiff, who were not suffering from a job-related disability, the general order limited to thirty days any light duty assignment for someone who was not injured on the job. As a result of that order, defendant, although willing to accommodate those corrections officers who were not ...


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