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In Cook v. Gregory Press, Inc., 2016 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1885 (App. Div. August 11, 2016), the Appellate Division reversed a trial court’s dismissal of a plaintiff’s disability discrimination case involving an employee eventually diagnosed with Lyme disease. The case involved Matthew Cook, who worked as a printing machine operator since 2002. In 2011, he began experiencing facial numbness, tingling in the hands, and neck pain. He saw a neurologist who thought he might have a demyelinating disease, recommending an MRI of the brain and spine.
Before Cook went for the MRI, his home was damaged by Hurricane Irene, and he was out of work for almost a week making repairs. He was given a day off from work on September 9, 2011 to undergo the MRI, which showed myelitis. His doctor recommended next a spinal tap to determine whether he might have MS, Lyme disease, or a virus. His boss granted him time off to get the spinal tap but suggested that Cook really had nothing wrong with him. The boss said he thought his problem was stress from the flood. Cook responded that this would not explain a lesion on his spine.
The spinal tap occurred on September 16, 2011, and Cook experienced complications from the spinal tap, including dizziness and headaches. He stayed in bed all weekend but went to work on September 19, 2011. He found that his head was pounding as the day went on and he had to leave to go home. His doctor prescribed fioricet. He could not work the next day due to severe headaches and nausea. His doctor prescribed Prednisone to relieve inflammation, but that made him jittery. His doctor next faxed a note to Cook’s supervisor saying that Cook needed to be out until released later in the week. Cook called his boss to ask for more time off, but his boss said that Cook better get back to work by Wednesday, September 21, 2011.
Cook did not feel well enough to return to work on September 21st but he did return anyway because he felt he had to. His head was pounding, and the loud noise from machines was aggravating his pain. He made a production mistake which delayed a printing job and wasted paper. His boss then proceeded to yell at him for the production mistake. Cook told his boss to stop yelling at him and then took off his headphones and threw them in a garbage can, walking away. His boss continued to yell at him, whereupon Cook told his boss that he would pay for the wasted paper but admonished his boss to stop yelling. The two men stared at each other, and then Cook walked away, telling his boss that all the yelling was aggravating his headache pain. Shortly thereafter, Cook was fired.
At some later point in time, Cook was diagnosed with Lyme disease and began intravenous therapy for 27 days. His doctor noted that the combination of Lyme disease and the effects of the spinal tap would naturally have an effect on Cook’s ability to handle stress. Cook sued under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) for wrongful termination and failure to make reasonable accommodation.
The trial judge threw out Cook’s case, finding that Cook was terminated for his bad attitude, not because of any disability. The judge also found that it not the responsibility of the company to initiate the interactive process where all the plaintiff says is that he has a headache.
The Appellate Division reversed for the following reasons. It said that the definition of disability under the NJLAD is much broader than the ADA. Under the NJLAD the plaintiff only has to show a physical or psychological condition which prevents the normal exercise of any bodily or mental function. One need not show a substantial limitation of a major life activity as is required under the ADA.
Under the court’s analysis, Lyme disease is a serious condition which qualifies as a disability under the NJLAD. It said that Cook’s doctor established that his patient had physical symptoms of Lyme disease while employed by Gregory Press. Because of his condition, Cook had to undergo medical testing that caused severe headaches and required steroid treatment, both of which affected Cook’s ability to work. The court also found that a jury could infer that the employer was aware of this disability, that Cook requested a reasonable accommodation in the form of leave, and that he could have been reasonably accommodated. The court said:
Plaintiff requested and was granted time off for the MRI and spinal tap. Plaintiff told Jeffrey (supervisor) about the spinal tap, and Gregory (another supervisor) approached plaintiff prior to the procedure and, despite knowing of the lesion on plaintiff’s spine, expressed his doubt there was anything wrong with plaintiff. Plaintiff returned to work on Monday with a severe headache, told Jeffrey about it, and Jeffrey permitted him to leave early. The next day, defendants received Dr. Monck’s note advising plaintiff was under her care and had an exacerbation in his neurologic condition, side effects of the spinal tap, and could not return to work until later that week ‘based on his recovery.’ Plaintiff advised Jeffrey that he was on steroids, the headaches could last a week and asked for the rest of the week off. Jeffrey ordered plaintiff back to work without further investigation or inquiry. Believing he had no choice, plaintiff returned to work the rest of the week, still suffering a headache and the effects of the steroids, which attributed to the production mistake. We conclude a jury could reasonably infer from this evidence that defendants knew of plaintiff’s disability, plaintiff requested a reasonable accommodation, plaintiff could have been reasonably accommodated, and defendants failed to make a good faith effort to provide a reasonable accommodation.
In New Jersey, it is rather easy for a plaintiff to prove a disability, so employers must take requests for time off work seriously when there are medical issues involved. The case is a primer for how an employer should not make termination decisions in a situation where an employee is having serious pain and symptoms from a cause as yet unknown. That the employer did not know plaintiff had Lyme disease at the time of firing was not a defense. The employer knew enough to realize that Cook may have a disability. The employer made a number of major mistakes in this case, first in pressuring the plaintiff to return to work before his doctor approved it, and second in engaging in a verbal confrontation while Cook was complaining that the yelling was aggravating the condition that he was treating for. It is also worth noting that the employer should not have speculated on the “real” problem that plaintiff was having, in suggesting his problems were related solely to stress. Lastly, the employer should have tried to engage in the interactive process before making the precipitous decision to fire Cook.
John H. Geaney, Esq., is an Executive Committee Member and a Shareholder in Capehart Scatchard's Workers’ Compensation Group. Mr. Geaney concentrates his practice in the representation of employers, self-insured companies, third-party administrators, and insurance carriers in workers’ compensation, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Family and Medical Leave Act. Should you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Mr. Geaney at 856.914.2063 or by e‑mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.