In a recent ruling, the New Jersey Appellate Division delivered a blow to an employee who claimed a perceived disability due to COVID-19. The court determined that the employee, who was suspected of contracting the virus, failed to establish a perceived disability claim under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD). It is worth noting that employers in New Jersey are aware that LAD's definition of a disability is much broader than that of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).While both laws prohibit disability and perceived disability discrimination in the workplace, the New Jersey law does not impose substantial limitations on its scope. Under LAD's definition, a disability encompasses various physical and sensory impairments, as well as mental, psychological, or developmental disabilities resulting from anatomical, psychological, physiological, or neurological conditions that hinder typical bodily or mental functions.
The case in question, Guzman v. M. Teixeira International, Inc., involved a machine operator who reported feeling unwell on July 23, 2020. Although he informed the CEO about his symptoms, he agreed to stay at work until the end of the day. Later, the CEO instructed the employee not to return until he underwent a COVID-19 test. While awaiting the test results, the employee indicated that he was feeling better and offered to return to work while adhering to social distancing measures. However, on July 29, 2020, before receiving his positive test results, the CEO terminated his employment, citing the employee's COVID symptoms and inability to provide a negative test result.
The plaintiff filed a lawsuit under LAD, alleging wrongful termination based on the perception that he had COVID-19. The trial court dismissed the complaint, stating that although COVID-19 is a disease, it does not qualify as a disability under LAD. On appeal, the Appellate Division concurred, emphasizing that not every illness constitutes a disability under the law. The court acknowledged the need for sensible and practical application of the statute and ruled that a transient and minor bout of COVID-19 does not fall within the definition of a covered disability.
Employers in New Jersey should be encouraged by the Appellate Division's sensible approach to applying the LAD. While the court's decision may narrow the state's definition of disability, it is crucial for employers to remember that discrimination cases under the LAD and the ADA are highly dependent on the specific facts of each case. Therefore, employers should carefully review the individual needs of their employees in light of both federal and state definitions before making any employment decisions or taking action.