Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Grande v. Saint Clare's Health System

Supreme Court of New Jersey

July 12, 2017

MARYANNE GRANDE, R.N., Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
SAINT CLARE'S HEALTH SYSTEM, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued January 31, 2017

         On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

          Sean R. Gallagher (Polsinelli, PC) of the Colorado bar, admitted pro hac vice, argued the cause for appellant (McCarter & English, LLP and Polsinelli, PC, attorneys; Thomas F. Doherty, Sean R. Gallagher, and Gillian McKean Bidgood (Polsinelli, PC) of the Colorado bar, admitted pro hac vice, on the briefs) .

          Noel C. Crowley argued the cause for respondent (Crowley & Crowley, attorneys).

          Richard M. Schall argued the cause for amicus curiae National Employment Lawyers Association of New Jersey (Schall & Barasch, LLC and Zuckerman & Fisher, LLC, attorneys; Richard M. Schall and Elizabeth R. Zuckerman on the brief).

          Benjamin Folkman argued the cause for amicus curiae New Jersey Association for Justice (Folkman Law Offices, PC, attorneys; Benjamin Folkman, Lauren M. Law, Eve R. Keller, Sarah A. M. Slachetka, Paul C. Jensen, Jr., on the brief).

         SOLOMON, J., writing for the Court.

         In this action brought under New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49, the Court determines whether the Appellate Division correctly reversed the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant Saint Clare's Health System and against plaintiff Maryanne Grande, R.N.

         Grande has been a practicing registered nurse (R.N.) since 1985. She was employed by Saint Clare's from approximately 2000 through July 2010. Beginning in 2007, Grande suffered a series of work-related injuries. Grande sustained her final injury in February 2010. In early July 2010, Grande's doctor cleared her to resume full-duty work. The hospital informed Grande that, before returning to full duty, she would have to undergo physical testing. Lori Briglio, the nurse case manager overseeing Grande's workers' compensation claim, instructed Grande to report to Kinematic Consultants, Inc. (KCI) for a functional capacity evaluation.

         Grande underwent the examination. The Report recommended maximum loads for Grande to bear, including that Grande frequently lift no more than sixteen pounds from waist to chest. The Report noted that Grande's results "may be compatible with mild residual functional issues, as per complaints and/or diagnosis, " but concluded that "[i]t is improbable that this will significantly affect job performance ability." The Report also explained that Grande qualified to return to work on "altered duty" based on the Report's recommendations.

         On July 21, 2010, following the functional capacity evaluation, Dr. Spielman re-examined Grande. He provided her with a form that indicated she could return to work the next day with restrictions, "per [the] FCE." Briglio advised the hospital that Dr. Spielman "agreed with the FCE report and advised that [Grande] should have permanent restrictions of lifting up to 50 lbs occasionally and that she should transfer patient with assistance only." The following day, Grande was summoned to a meeting with her supervisors, at which she was fired. Grande testified in her deposition that she was told she had limitations that would prevent her from doing her job.

         After her termination, Grande again visited Dr. Spielman, who issued another return-to-work form on August 25, 2010, clearing Grande to return immediately to full-time, full-duty work with no limitations.

         Nearly a year after her discharge, Grande filed a two-count complaint against Saint Clare's, alleging violations of N.J.S.A. 10:5-4.1, a subsection of the LAD. The first count alleged that Saint Clare's unlawfully discriminated against Grande based on her disability, and the second count alleged unlawful discrimination based on a perceived disability. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Saint Clare's, finding that Grande did not establish a prima facie case of discriminatory discharge because she "failed to articulate whether she was performing (or was able to perform) her job at a level that met the employer's legitimate expectations."

         A divided Appellate Division panel reversed because the record contained several material facts in dispute. According to the majority, "the motion court incorrectly resolved these materially disputed facts in favor of [Saint Clare's] and rejected or minimized the importance of evidence a rational jury could find to support [Grande's] case of unlawful discrimination due to her perceived physical disability." The dissent found no genuine factual disputes. Saint Clare's filed this appeal as of right pursuant to Rule 2:2-l(a)(2), limited to whether summary judgment was appropriately awarded to the hospital by the trial court on the facts in the record before it.

         HELD: On the record before the trial court, issues of material fact exist. The Court affirms and modifies the judgment of the Appellate Division and remands the matter to the trial court for further proceedings.

          1. The LAD prohibits an employer from terminating a disabled employee because of her disability unless the disability "reasonably precludes the performance of the particular employment." N.J.S.A. 10:5-4.1. To prove a discriminatory discharge case by direct evidence, a plaintiff must produce evidence that an employer placed substantial reliance on a proscribed discriminatory factor in making its decision to terminate the employee. If direct evidence is unavailable, a plaintiff may prove her claim by circumstantial evidence. To evaluate circumstantial evidence cases, this Court has adopted the three-step burden-shifting test articulated by the United States Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green. 411 UJL 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973). The Court has modified the McDonnell Douglas framework in evaluating disability discrimination claims, (pp. 16-17)

         2. The first step of the modified framework requires that a plaintiff prove by a preponderance of the evidence that: (1) she is disabled within the meaning of the LAD; (2) she was performing her job at a level that met her employer's legitimate expectations; (3) she was discharged; and (4) the employer sought someone else to perform the same work after she left. If a plaintiff successfully establishes a prima facie case, a presumption arises that the employer unlawfully discriminated against the plaintiff. An employer may terminate a disabled employee where continued employment "would be hazardous to the safety or health of [the employee], other employees, clients or customers." N.J.A.C. 13:13-2.8(a)(2): Jansen v. Food Circus Supermkts.. Inc.. 110 NJ, 363, 374 (1988). (pp. 17-21)

         3. In addition to the above analysis, the LAD regulations require an evaluation of whether a reasonable accommodation would have allowed the disabled employee to perform her job. The Court holds that the reasonable-accommodation consideration belongs in the second-prong analysis. A plaintiff may satisfy the second prong of the prima facie case for an allegation of discriminatory discharge based on a disability by putting forth evidence either that she was actually performing her job or was able, with or without reasonable accommodation, to perform her job to her employer's legitimate expectations, (pp. 20-24)

         4. Because Grande fails to show a hostility toward members of her class, this case must be resolved by applying the McDonnell Douglas circumstantial evidence framework. Grande relies on Zive v. Stanley Roberts. Inc.. where the Court stated that the "slight burden of the second prong is satisfied" when a plaintiff "adduces evidence that [s] he has, in fact, performed in the position up to the time of termination." 182 N.J. 436, 455 (2005). Zive did not involve an employee's extended periods of absence from work. An issue of fact exists as to whether Grande's periods of absence from work preclude her from demonstrating that she was actually performing her job at the time she was terminated. This factual dispute is material to Grande's prima facie case. The Court reverses summary judgment in Saint Clare's favor and remands for trial on the record as it stands, (pp. 24-30)

         5. The Court turns to Saint Clare's alternate claim that Saint Clare's is entitled to summary judgment on the basis of the defenses it asserted under the second McDonnell Douglas step. To prove that Grande's perceived disability precluded her from performing as a R.N., Saint Clare's must show that it reasonably arrived at its opinion. Saint Clare's maintains that it met this burden by relying on the KCI Report. First, there is a dispute as to whether the lifting standards identified by the KCI Report are actually the standards applicable to Grande's position. Second, there is a dispute as to whether the KCI Report conclusively establishes that Grande is unable to perform her job. These factual disputes are material to the issue of whether Grande's disability precluded her from performing the essential functions of her job. Saint Clare's also maintains that Grande's history of injuring herself on the job sufficiently proved her inability to perform her job without posing a risk of harm to herself or others. The evidence that Grande presented a risk of injury to herself or patients is inadequate to resolve this material issue, (pp. 30-36)

         The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED AS MODIFIED, and the matter is REMANDED to the trial court for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         JUSTICE LaVECCHIA, CONCURRING, underscores that, for a disability discrimination claim to survive a summary judgment motion, the showing required of a terminated plaintiff regarding her ability to perform the essential functions of her job is a modest one and observes that this matter is a missed opportunity to reassess the convoluted frameworks adopted to evaluate LAD disability discrimination cases. To the extent those frameworks apply, in Justice LaVecchia's view, this matter would be better and more directly analyzed as a direct evidence case.

          CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ- VINA, and TIMPONE join in JUSTICE SOLOMON'S opinion. JUSTICE LaVECCHIA filed a separate, CONCURRING opinion.

          OPINION

          SOLOMON JUSTICE.

         We are called upon to determine whether in this action brought under New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49, the Appellate Division correctly reversed the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant Saint Clare's Health System and against plaintiff Maryanne Grande, R.N. Because we conclude that, on the record before the trial court, issues of material fact exist, we affirm and modify the judgment of the Appellate Division and remand the matter to the trial court for further proceedings.

         I.

         A.

         We glean the following facts from the record considered by the trial court, including Grande's deposition, certifications by Saint Clare's and its agents, various exhibits contained within each party's summary judgment motion, and associated statements of material facts.

         Grande has been a practicing registered nurse (R.N.) since 1985. She was employed by Saint Clare's from approximately 2000 through July 2010. Beginning in about 2006, Grande worked in a hospital unit in which approximately half of the patients were stroke victims who required additional assistance with their daily living needs. Grande's regular duties involved maintaining charts, administering medication, and general patient care, including assisting patients with daily living activities such as washing, bathing, dressing, walking, repositioning patients in bed, and guarding ambulant patients against falls. Thirty to forty percent of the patients in Grande's unit wore armbands and had signage placed outside their hospital rooms to alert staff that they were at an increased risk of falling.

         In August 2008, the hospital performed job system analyses for various nursing positions. The job analysis for R.N.s (Job Analysis) indicated the frequency with which job duties were to be performed and identified certain tasks as essential to the R.N. position regardless of how frequent their performance. The Job Analysis categorized occasional tasks as those performed "1-33% of the day" and frequent tasks as those performed "34-66% of the day." Essential tasks were described as the "[e]ssential function[s] of [the] job." One essential duty of an R.N. is to lift fifty pounds from waist to chest "frequently." According to the certification of Heather Jordan, Saint Clare's human resources supervisor, the weightlifting requirements within the Job Analysis are identical for all R.N.-staffed units in the hospital.[1]

         Beginning in 2007, prior to the Job Analysis, Grande suffered a series of work-related injuries. The first occurred in March 2007, when she injured her left shoulder while repositioning a patient in bed. Grande was unable to continue working that day, immediately saw a doctor, and reported the incident to Saint Clare's. She had surgery on her shoulder in April, followed by physical therapy. Grande spent about three months recovering at home before returning to work on a full-time but "light duty" basis, which included chart administration, compliance review, and similar administrative tasks. Less than a month later, Grande returned to full duty, including patient care.

         The second injury occurred in May 2008, when Grande felt pain in her right shoulder while repositioning a patient in bed. Grande reported the incident immediately to Saint Clare's and saw a doctor, who performed a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The test found no injury, and Grande returned to full duty within two weeks. The record is unclear as to whether Grande's work was restricted following the May 2008 injury.

         In November 2008, Grande re-injured her left shoulder while lifting the legs of a 300-pound patient. As before, Grande immediately saw a doctor and reported the incident to her employer. Grande was unable to return immediately to work, underwent a second surgery on her left shoulder, and returned to full duty about six months after the incident.

         Grande sustained her final injury in February 2010 when she was alone in a room caring for an overweight patient who was moving from a stretcher to a bed. While Grande stood on the far side of the bed, the patient began to fall. Grande leapt onto the bed, grabbed the patient's shoulders from behind, and pulled the patient onto the bed and on top of herself. After doing so, Grande felt a sharp pain and believed she had re-injured her left shoulder, but an MRI revealed that she had injured her cervical spine. Grande underwent surgery and spent four months recovering and rehabilitating before returning to work. On her first day back, however, she left the hospital after just four hours because of residual pain. Two weeks later, Grande returned to full-time, light-duty work.

         In early July 2010, Grande's doctor cleared her to resume full-duty work. The hospital informed Grande that, before returning to full duty, she would have to undergo physical testing. Lori Briglio, the nurse case manager overseeing Grande's workers' compensation claim, instructed Grande to report to Kinematic Consultants, Inc. (KCI) for a functional capacity evaluation (FCE).

         Grande complied and underwent the examination, which tested her ability to perform a variety of physical tasks, including turning her head, demonstrating mobility in her limbs, lifting objects from different heights, turning in different directions, pushing and pulling, and carrying weights. The report documenting the evaluation (KCI Report) provided results in several categories and compared Grande's ability with her employer's requirements and with the standards set forth in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (D.O.T.).[2] The Report specified that Grande's job demanded that she perform tasks involving pushing, pulling, and lifting from waist to chest frequently (34-66% of the time), but that she was able to perform these functions only occasionally (1-33% of the time). Accordingly, the Report recommended maximum loads for Grande to bear, including that Grande frequently lift no more than sixteen pounds from waist to chest.

         The KCI Report also provided several conclusions about Grande's performance throughout the evaluation and her work abilities. The Report acknowledged that Grande had "demonstrated maximum effort" throughout the evaluation and confirmed that the documented results "are considered to be valid." The Report noted that Grande's results "may be compatible with mild residual functional issues, as per complaints and/or diagnosis, " but concluded that "[i]t is improbable that this will significantly affect job performance ability."

         The Report also explained that Grande qualified to return to work on "altered duty" based on the Report's recommendations. Due to Grande's previous cervical surgery, the Report recommended that Grande be "allowed changes in activities during periods of prolonged or repetitive" neck movements. The Report also recommended that Grande "seek appropriate assistance with heavier physical activities such as patient transfers, guarding ambulatory patients or handling loads" greater than fifty pounds.

         Overall, the KCI Report concluded that Grande

demonstrate[d] ability for Medium category work (occasional lift and work up to 50 lbs.) with the above noted job movement demand changes. She demonstrate[d] ability for administrative/supervisory duties, verbal instruction to patients/care givers, assisting physicians with examinations, assisting with wound care/dressing changes, dispensation of medications, pushing wheelchairs, assisting with moderate patient care, handling loads up to 50 lbs., etc.

         Shortly after the KCI Report was issued, Briglio contacted KCI via e-mail to clarify several aspects of the Report, including the portions of the job description that Grande could not fulfill and the accommodations she would require.[3] In an addendum, KCI responded that Grande "demonstrates ability for Medium category work (occasional lift and work up to 50 lbs.) with noted job movement demand changes" and reiterated that Grande could return to work with certain accommodations. Nonetheless, the addendum concluded with the following disclaimer: "Please note that determination for final return to work abilities for [Grande] is deferred to her treating physician, in this case, Joel H. Spielman, M.D."

         On July 21, 2010, following the functional capacity evaluation, Dr. Spielman re-examined Grande. He provided her with a form that indicated she could return to work the next day with restrictions, "per [the] FCE." Briglio, in turn, advised the hospital that Dr. Spielman "agreed with the FCE report and advised that [Grande] should have permanent restrictions of lifting up to 50 lbs occasionally and that she should transfer patient with assistance only."

         The following day, Grande was summoned to a meeting with her supervisors, at which she was fired. Grande testified in her deposition that she was told she had limitations that would prevent her from doing her job.[4]

         After her termination, Grande again visited Dr. Spielman, who issued another return-to-work form on August 25, 2010, clearing Grande to return immediately to full-time, full-duty work with no limitations. Grande submitted the new work authorization to Saint Clare's, but Saint Clare's refused to rehire her.

         B.

         Nearly a year after her discharge, Grande filed a two-count complaint against Saint Clare's, alleging violations of N.J.S.A. 10:5-4.1, a subsection of the LAD. The first count alleged that Saint Clare's unlawfully discriminated against Grande based on her disability, and the second count alleged unlawful discrimination based on a perceived disability.[5]

         Saint Clare's denied liability and, following discovery, filed a motion for summary judgment. In a certification supporting that motion, Saint Clare's human resources supervisor, Jordan, asserted that "Grande was physically unable to perform an essential function of her job" and expressed "concern[] that Ms. Grande would be re-injured or that a patient would be injured if [Grande] returned to full duty." Jordan also certified that the decision to terminate Grande's employment was based on the findings in the KCI Report and the July 2010 recommendation of Grande's own physician.

         Grande filed a cross-motion for summary judgment. She conceded that she had periods of disability due to work-related accidents but asserted that she surpassed the D.O.T. weight-lifting requirements for nurses in her field, as reflected on the KCI Report. Grande also alleged that the weight-lifting requirements specified in the KCI Report were "fictitious" because the standards were "far higher" than those required by the D.O.T. and "ha[d] not been shown to have ever been adopted by Saint Clare's." She also contended that the hospital improperly interpreted the KCI Report's recommended lifting restrictions as actual limitations on her abilities, highlighting that she had, in fact, lifted ninety-two pounds from waist to shoulders during the evaluation, far above her employer's fifty-pound requirement.

         The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Saint Clare's, finding that Grande did not establish a prima facie case of discriminatory discharge because she "failed to articulate whether she was performing (or was able to perform) her job at a level that met the employer's legitimate expectations."

         A divided Appellate Division panel reversed, vacating summary judgment and remanding because the record contained several material facts in dispute that could only be resolved by a jury. According to the majority, "the motion court incorrectly resolved these materially disputed facts in favor of [Saint Clare's] and rejected or minimized the importance of evidence a rational jury could find to support [Grande's] case of unlawful discrimination due to her perceived physical disability." The majority explained:

Here, plaintiff produced competent evidence, in the form of her treating physician's certification, stating she had been medically cleared to return to work without restrictions. Defendant has not rebutted that medical opinion with the opinion of another physician. Instead, defendant relies on the results of a "functional capacity evaluation [FCE] test" conducted by an alleged independent company retained by defendant's Department of Human Resources. KCI's report contains facially equivocal findings with respect to plaintiff's abilities to perform the core requirements of a nurse.

         The dissenting member of the panel emphasized that "[t]he law should not place a hospital in a position of sacrificing employee and patient safety in order to avoid potential liability for discrimination" and that the hospital "could sensibly rely on [Grande's] actual work history [and history of injuries] when it placed safety interests above [her] continued employment." The dissent also found no genuine factual disputes because "at the time the hospital made its decision to terminate [Grande], her treating physician had stated she could return to work, but only with lifting restrictions" -- a recommendation which was modified "only after the hospital had already terminated [Grande's] employment."

         Saint Clare's filed this appeal as of right pursuant to Rule 2:2-1(a)(2), limited to whether summary judgment was appropriately awarded to the hospital by the trial court on the facts in the record before it. We granted amicus curiae status to the New Jersey Association for ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.