No Obligation To Make Light-Duty Job Permanent

New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD), though quite similar to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), has often been interpreted by New Jersey’s courts in a way more favorable to employees than the ADA. The general run of favorable outcomes for employees skidded to a halt in June 2007, when the New Jersey Supreme Court held that, like the ADA, the LAD does not require permanent light-duty assignments in a public safety job.

The case involved Michael Raspa, a corrections officer assigned to the Gloucester County Jail in Woodbury, New Jersey. Raspa discharged his employment duties without incident until October 1997, when he was diagnosed with a hyperactive thyroid, or Graves’ Disease. In order to limit his thyroid functions, Raspa was treated with radioactive iodine. As a corollary, Raspa also developed Graves’ ophthalmopathy, a condition resulting in bulging eyes and possible double vision.

There is no treatment to stop the immune system from producing the antibodies that cause Graves’ Disease or its corollary, Graves’ ophthalmopathy; that is, there presently is no cure. However, Graves’ Disease can be managed by either decreasing the production of, or blocking the action of, the hormone thyroxine. Similarly, the symptoms of Graves’ ophthalmopathy can be managed by medications or surgery.

Raspa continued discharging his regular and usual duties as a corrections officer until February 1999, when, due to his degenerating Graves’ ophthalmopathy, Raspa’s then-treating physician issued a doctor’s note stating that she expected that Raspa’s eye symptoms would “worsen” as a result of his daily radiation treatments, and “request[ing] he not supervise inmates.” Complying with this request, the County placed Raspa on “restricted duty status” and reassigned him to light-duty positions at several locations and with different functions within the County jail system. Each of these light-duty positions had a common denominator: They involved no immediate contact with inmates.

Four months later, in June 1999, the County issued a general order addressing who would be eligible for assignment to those light-duty positions. Distinguishing between corrections officers who had been injured on the job and those, like Raspa, who were not suffering from a job-related disability, the general order limited to 30 days any light-duty assignment for someone who was not injured on the job. As a result of that order, the County, although willing to accommodate those corrections officers who were not injured on the job, gave preference to and priority for the few available light-duty assignments to those who had been injured on the job.

Eventually, the County applied its general order and placed Raspa on involuntary disability retirement. Raspa, who wanted to continue in the light-duty job he had now held for three years, sued the County under the LAD, alleging that the County had violated the LAD by failing to reasonably accommodate his disability by permanently assigning him to existing positions with limited inmate contact and could have insured his safety through the use of protective goggles.

The New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the County’s position. The Court observed that “the LAD’s reach, although broad, is not without limitation. It forbids any unlawful discrimination against any person because such person is or has been at any time disabled or any unlawful employment practice against such person, unless the nature and extent of the disability reasonably precludes the performance of the particular employment.”

The Court held that the job requirements for corrections officers included inmate contact, something that was an “essential function of the job.” The Court found that Raspa, “given the medical limitations placed on him, simply was unable to perform any of the essential functions that involved contact with inmates. No objectively viable and reasonable accommodation would ever make Raspa qualified to perform the functions he admitted were essential to the position of a County corrections officer.”

Raspa argued that he was assigned to light-duty work that minimized, if not eliminated, contact with the inmates for a period of three years preceding his involuntary retirement and, therefore, that accommodation should have been continued indefinitely. The Court disagreed, finding that “the LAD does not require an employer to create a permanent part-time position for a disabled employee if no suitable full-time position exists. Nor does the LAD require an employer to create a permanent light-duty position to replace a medium-duty one. Rather, an employer must simply make all reasonable accommodations to an employee returning from disability leave and allow the employee a reasonable time to recover from his injuries.

“Light-duty positions are not intended to be a permanent post, but a temporary way station or bridge between an inability to work due to injury and a return to full employment status; they are intended as a shield to protect the temporarily disabled, and not as a sword by which a person who is otherwise unqualified for the position can demand a permanent posting. We hold that the LAD does not require that an employer create an indefinite light-duty position for a permanently disabled employee if the employee’s disability, absent a reasonable accommodation, renders him otherwise unqualified for a full-time, full-duty position.”

Raspa v. Office of Sheriff of County of Gloucester, 2007 WL 1672871 (N.J. 2007).

This article appears in the August 2007 issue