TRENTON, N.J. (Legal Newsline) – On July 12, the Supreme Court of New Jersey affirmed an appellate court’s revival of a nurse’s disability discrimination lawsuit against Saint Clare’s Health System.
The court unanimously upheld an appellate panel’s ruling reversing a lower court’s dismissal of Maryanne Grande’s suit against Saint Clare’s. Citing questions concerning material facts, the court ruled that Grande should be allowed the opportunity to prove she was fired in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).
Grande suffered a string of work-related injuries between 2007 and 2010. After a functional capacity evaluation report concluded she could return to work in July 2010 with certain restrictions following her most recent injury, Grande was fired by Saint Clare’s on the grounds that these restrictions prevented her from performing essential duties, the court's opinion states. She subsequently filed a disability discrimination suit.
In an opinion supported by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and justices Barry Albin, Anne Patterson, Faustino Fernandez-Vina and Walter Timpone, Justice Lee Solomon found that, due to ambiguities in the evaluation report, “we cannot discern which tasks were essential to Grande’s job.”
Furthermore, Solomon cited “a dispute as to whether the [evaluation] report conclusively establishes that Grande is unable to perform her job” and questioned whether or not Grande’s continued employment would have posed a risk to herself or her patients.
Noting that Saint Clare’s must prove that no feasible accommodations could have been made prior to terminating Grande, the court upheld the appellate court’s decision to revive Grande’s prima facie discrimination case and remand it for trial court proceedings.
Justice Jaynee LaVecchia concurred with the court’s opinion to revive Grande’s case, but wrote separately challenging the precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court in McDonnel Douglas v. Green (1973), which places the burden on the plaintiff in cases like Grande’s.
LaVecchia wrote “this matter is a missed opportunity to reassess the convoluted frameworks we have adopted to evaluate LAD disability cases,” and found that it “would be better and more effectively analyzed as a direct evidence case.”
Grande was first employed by Saint Clare’s in 2000. She sustained work-related shoulder injuries in March 2007, May 2008 and November 2008, which required two surgeries and forced her to miss several months of work combined.
In February 2010, Grande sustained a cervical spine injury while catching a falling patient. This required surgery and several months of recovery and rehabilitation. In July 2010, Grande was cleared by her doctor to return to work and reassume full duties.
Before allowing Grande to return to work, Saint Clare’s required her to undergo a third-party functional capacity evaluation, which tested her ability to perform a number of physical tasks. The evaluation report found that Grande could only perform certain duties, such as heavy lifting. Grande was fired on the grounds that she could no longer perform duties essential to her position with reasonable accommodations.
Grande’s original discrimination lawsuit was dismissed by Morris County Superior Court Judge Thomas Manahan in 2013. In August 2015, a split appellate panel revived her case due to questions concerning material facts.