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Victor v. New Jersey

New Jersey's Top Court Upholds Disability Discrimination Law

The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with AARP when it rejected an artificially high barrier set for victims of disability discrimination seeking to prove they deserve "reasonable accommodation" on the job.

AARP's "friend of the court" brief supported the case of Roy Victor, a New Jersey State Trooper who charged his employer with disability and racial discrimination. The focus of AARP's brief in this dispute was the preliminary hurdle a plaintiff must clear in order to bring a discrimination lawsuit in a case of an employer's denial of "reasonable accommodation." The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with AARP in rejecting an artificially high barrier set by a lower court for victims of disability discrimination seeking to show they should have received but were denied workplace modifications known as "reasonable accommodation." It was a mixed ruling, however, as the court still ruled against the plaintiff (Mr. Victor) on other grounds. All the same, the ruling upheld an important legal principle that was under attack by state officials.

The Dispute

Victor began his career as a state trooper in April 1986 and was progressively promoted, finding himself in 1995 the most senior officer in his squad and serving as assistant squad supervisor. While on duty in 1995, he injured his back in a car accident. This led to a decade of rehabilitation, re-injury and alternating duty status: now on, now off, now on extended leave.

During the course of this difficult decade for Victor, the State Division of Police assigned him to various substations, some quite distant from his home. Victor, in his late 40s and African-American, also was passed over for promotions in favor of more junior, Caucasian officers. Victor further alleged that the state police forced him to work for supervisors who subjected him to condescending attitudes and embarrassing remarks in the squad room, and questioned his supervisory skills and ability to handle assignments. He filed several complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), to no avail.

In 2003, state police officials directed Victor to take leave-without-pay until he could show "adequate medical information regarding the medical condition that you claim prevents you from returning to duty." Within a week, Victor submitted a letter from his psychologist stating that he suffered from depression and stress. Victor also submitted an independent psychological evaluation concluding that he could not return to full-time duty. As a result, the state police reinstated Victor and awarded him back pay. But later (Victor alleged) the state police ordered him out on patrol duty at a time when he said back spasms required that he work inside at a desk. Victor contends that supervisors refused this request for a "reasonable accommodation of his disabling back condition."

In January 2005, Victor filed suit against the state police alleging that he had been treated far less well than his white counterparts and had suffered a "failure to accommodate" a "disability" in violation of the N.J. Law Against Discrimination (LAD), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race or disability. A jury ultimately awarded Victor $315,000 in compensatory and punitive damages, and attorneys fees.

However, a state intermediate appellate court reversed the jury's verdict and ordered a new trial. The appeals court ruled that the trial judge had failed to instruct the jury properly and that in order to find for the plaintiff, the jury had to find that the plaintiff suffered a separate and independent "adverse employment action." The appeals court disagreed with the trial judge's ruling that an employer's failure to accommodate an employee is "in and of itself an adverse employment action."

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