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Caraballo v. City of Jersey City Police Department

Supreme Court of New Jersey

March 25, 2019

Frank Caraballo, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
City of Jersey City Police Department, a municipal entity, and Thomas Comey, individually and in his representative capacity, Defendants-Appellants.

          Argued January 29, 2019

          On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

          Scott W. Carbone, Assistant Corporation Counsel, argued the cause for appellants (Peter J. Baker, Corporation Counsel, attorney; Scott W. Carbone and Cheneise V. Wright, Assistant Corporation Counsel, on the briefs).

          Brian F. Curley argued the cause for respondent (Brian F. Curley, on the briefs).

          Susan C. Sharpe argued the cause for amici curiae New Jersey Municipal Excess Liability Joint Insurance Fund, New Jersey State League of Municipalities, and New Jersey Institute of Local Government Attorneys (Dorsey & Semrau, attorneys; Fred C. Semrau, of counsel; and Susan C. Sharpe and Edward R. Pasternak, on the brief).

          Evan L. Goldman argued the cause for amicus curiae New Jersey Association for Justice (Goldman Davis, attorneys; Evan L. Goldman, of counsel and on the brief; and Kristen Ragon, on the brief).

         In this appeal, the Court considers the relationship between two statutory schemes: the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49, and the New Jersey Workers' Compensation Act (Act), N.J.S.A. 34:15-1 to -146. Specifically, the Court must determine whether a plaintiff who pursues a workers' compensation claim under the Act but fails to utilize its enforcement mechanisms may make a claim for failure to accommodate under the LAD. Relatedly, the Court must also consider whether medical treatment qualifies as a reasonable accommodation under the LAD.

         While on duty as a detective for the Jersey City Police Department (JCPD) in August 1999, plaintiff Frank Caraballo sustained injuries during a motor vehicle accident. The injuries to his knees were severe and became chronic. In August 2001, Caraballo filed a workers' compensation claim related to the 1999 accident. Over the next several years, physicians evaluated Caraballo. Two city-appointed doctors agreed that Caraballo would eventually need total knee replacements to recover fully from his injuries; other doctors confirmed Caraballo's need for knee replacement surgery.

         In August 2010, Caraballo submitted an application for retirement. Around the same time, the Commander of the JCPD Medical Bureau, Lieutenant John McLellan, determined that Caraballo "had been unfit for duty for numerous years." Although doctors had recommended total knee replacement surgery, McLellan did not believe that Caraballo was pursuing this option. According to McLellan, Caraballo refused to see the doctor "who would be able to determine unequivocally whether or not he could have the surgery."

         In February 2011, Chief of Police Thomas Comey learned that Caraballo had not undergone knee replacement surgery. Caraballo retired on March 1. Shortly thereafter, Risk Management authorized an orthopedic surgeon to evaluate Caraballo for bilateral knee replacement surgery. The surgeon examined Caraballo and, according to the doctor's records, Caraballo "was told to contact [the] office to pick a date for surgery pending medical and cardiac clearance." Caraballo never called the doctor's office to schedule surgery.

         On March 4, 2013, more than six-and-a-half years after he requested that the JCPD authorize knee replacement surgery, Caraballo settled his workers' compensation claim. Shortly thereafter, he filed a complaint against the JCPD asserting a cause of action under the LAD. Specifically, Caraballo alleged that the JCPD failed to authorize his knee replacement surgery and, therefore, failed to reasonably accommodate his disability.

         The trial court granted the JCPD's motion for summary judgment. 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. The trial court also found that Caraballo could not bring a viable LAD claim because he failed to enforce his right to have knee surgery in the workers' compensation court. Citing Flick v. PMA Insurance Co., 394 N.J.Super. 605 (App. Div. 2007), the court concluded that because Caraballo failed to make an application to enforce his right to have knee surgery, he was "precluded from using a denial of the [w]orkers' [c]ompensation benefits as a basis for his []LAD claim."

         The Appellate Division reversed. According to the panel, the record contained numerous material factual disputes -- including why Caraballo retired without receiving knee surgery -- that should have been presented to a jury. The Appellate Division also concluded that Caraballo established a prima facie failure-to-accommodate case under the LAD. The panel reasoned that there was a material dispute as to whether Caraballo would have been able to perform his job with the accommodation -- total knee replacement surgery.

         The Court granted the JCPD's petition for certification. 233 N.J. 485 (2018).

         HELD: Caraballo's failure to utilize the Act's administrative remedies to obtain knee replacement surgery precludes his failure-to-accommodate claim under the LAD. In addition, Caraballo's total knee replacement surgery cannot qualify as a reasonable accommodation under the LAD.

         1. Subject to certain statutory exceptions, the Act provides the exclusive remedy for an employee who sustains a work-related injury to obtain relief from his employer. In Flick, the Appellate Division concluded that employees must "first pursue all avenues for relief" in the workers' compensation court before seeking enforcement in the Law Division. 394 N.J.Super. at 613. Because the plaintiff "failed to exhaust administrative remedies available to him before the judge of compensation," the Appellate Division affirmed dismissal of the complaint. Id. at 608. In doing so, however, the Flick panel acknowledged the "plaintiff's contentions of systemic failure" and commented that "any prospective reform of [the Act's] enforcement measures that may be needed" should come from the Legislature or the Division of Workers' Compensation. Id. at 614. In the wake of Flick, the Legislature enacted N.J.S.A. 34:15-28.2, which created a variety of enforcement mechanisms for employees to combat failure to comply with an order. The Court explored the enforcement tools made available under N.J.S.A. 34:15-28.2 in Stancil v. ACE USA, 211 N.J. 276 (2012), and declined the plaintiff's invitation to "creat[e] a new cause of action" against an employer's compensation carrier directly, id. at 291. In short, under the Act, an employee must exhaust administrative remedies available in the workers' compensation court before seeking enforcement in the Law Division. (pp. 10-12)

         2. Here, Caraballo filed his workers' compensation claim in 2001, retired in 2011, and settled his claim with the JCPD in 2013. In the interim, he sought authorization for double knee replacement surgery but never sought to enforce his right to the surgery in the workers' compensation court. Caraballo's failure to utilize the Act's administrative remedies precludes his failure-to-accommodate claim under the LAD. (p. 13)

         3. Although Caraballo's failure to exhaust the administrative remedies available to him resolves the matter, the Court considers the question of first impression posed by this case to offer guidance on a matter of considerable public importance: whether the alleged failure to provide an employee with knee surgery can serve as the basis for a viable failure-to-accommodate claim. New Jersey courts evaluate an employer's obligation to reasonably accommodate an employee's disability under the LAD in accordance with its federal counterpart, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 to 12213. N.J.A.C. 13:13-2.5(b)(1) provides some specific examples of reasonable accommodations under the LAD, which are all designed to make certain changes in the work environment or structuring of employees' time that will allow disabled employees to remain at work without their physical handicaps impeding their job performance. (pp. 13-16)

         4. The ADA defines "reasonable accommodation" in 42 U.S.C. § 12111(9)(B), and regulations promulgated by the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) further define "reasonable accommodation" at 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(o)(1)(ii). Like New Jersey's regulations, those promulgated by the EEOC "make clear that . . . a 'reasonable accommodation' is generally 'any change in the work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities.'" Desmond v. Yale-New Haven Hosp., Inc., 738 F.Supp.2d 331, 350 (D. Conn. 2010) (quoting 29 C.F.R. app. § 1630.2(o)). In Desmond, the court concluded that neither the text of the ADA nor its regulations "contemplate that an employer should be required to provide a disabled employee with medical treatment in order to restore her ability to perform essential job functions." Id. at 350. The district court's reasoning hews closely to the language of the regulations and the EEOC's compliance manual, and the balance struck by the district court in Desmond fits neatly within the Court's LAD jurisprudence. The medical procedure sought by Caraballo -- his double knee replacement surgery -- is neither a modification to the work environment nor a removal of workplace barriers. Rather, it is a means to treat or mitigate the effects of his injuries, like the treatments at issue in Desmond. Consistent with the LAD, the ADA, and their regulations, Caraballo's total knee replacement surgery cannot qualify as a reasonable accommodation under the LAD. (pp. 16-19)

         The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED, and the order granting summary judgment is REINSTATED.

          CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, PATTERSON, and FERNANDEZ-VINA join in JUSTICE SOLOMON'S opinion.

          JUSTICE TIMPONE did not participate.

          OPINION

          SOLOMON JUSTICE

         In this appeal, we are called upon to consider the relationship between two statutory schemes: the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49, and the New Jersey Workers' Compensation Act (Act), N.J.S.A. 34:15-1 to -146. Specifically, we must determine whether a plaintiff who pursues a workers' compensation claim under the Act but fails to utilize its enforcement mechanisms may make a claim for failure to accommodate ...


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