New Jersey Court Imposes Limits on State Law’s Near-Limitless Definition of Disability

  • New Jersey Appellate Division decision finds employee suspected of contracting COVID-19 failed to assert a perceived disability claim under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.
  • Decision shows New Jersey courts are willing to limit expansive definition of “disabled” under state law, but employers still need to be mindful that disability discrimination cases under both state and federal law are extremely fact-specific.

Although both the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibit disability and perceived disability discrimination in the workplace, the LAD definition of “disability” is significantly broader than is the federal ADA definition.  As a result, many employers have assumed – often correctly – that virtually any medical condition may constitute a covered disability under the LAD, triggering that law’s reasonable accommodation obligations and termination precautions.  On June 7, 2023, in Guzman v. M. Teixeira International, Inc., the New Jersey Appellate Division showed a willingness to limit the LAD’s seemingly boundless definition of “disabled,” ruling against an employee alleging a perceived disability claim involving COVID-19.

The Differing Definitions of “Disability” Under Federal and New Jersey Law 

Under both the ADA and LAD, covered employers are prohibited from discriminating against qualified individuals on the basis of a physical or mental disability with regard to employment and its terms, conditions, and privileges.  Both statutes also impose a duty to provide a reasonable accommodation for such an individual’s disability, and to engage in an interactive process to find such an accommodation, if possible.  Where they most fundamentally differ, however, is how each law defines “disability.”

The ADA defines “disability” as: (1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; (2) a record of such an impairment; or (3) being regarded as having such an impairment, regardless of whether the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity.  Consistent with the “substantially limiting” qualifier of the first two definitions, under the third definition, the ADA further curtails an individual’s ability to state a “regarded as” claim if the impairment is “transitory and minor,” with a “transitory impairment” defined as one with an “actual or expected duration of 6 months or less.”  

The LAD’s definition of disability is much broader, imposing no “substantially limiting” of a “major life activity,” or beyond “transitory and minor,” restrictions on its scope.  Under the LAD, a disability is any

physical or sensory disability, infirmity, malformation, or disfigurement which is caused by bodily injury, birth defect, or illness including epilepsy and other seizure disorders, and which shall include, but not be limited to, any degree of paralysis, amputation, lack of physical coordination, blindness or visual impairment, deafness or hearing impairment, muteness or speech impairment, or physical reliance on a service or guide dog, wheelchair, or other remedial appliance or device, or any mental, psychological, or developmental disability, including autism spectrum disorders, resulting from anatomical, psychological, physiological, or neurological conditions which prevents the typical exercise of any bodily or mental functions or is demonstrable, medically or psychologically, by accepted clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques. Disability shall also mean AIDS or HIV infection.1

Additionally, unlike under the ADA, under the LAD, an employee who is perceived to have or is regarded as having a disability is protected to the same extent as someone who is disabled, as long as that perceived characteristic, if genuine, would qualify as a disability.2 

It is against this backdrop that the Appellate Division considered the plaintiff’s claim in the instant case.

The Guzman Decision

The plaintiff was a machine operator who reported to work feeling ill on July 23, 2020.  He told the company’s CEO he felt “cold, clammy, and weak,” but agreed to stay until the end of the day when asked to do so.  Later that night, the CEO advised the plaintiff he could not return to work until he took a COVID-19 test. 

The next day, the plaintiff had the COVID-19 test.  While waiting for the results, he told the CEO he was feeling better, and offered to return to work while remaining socially distanced from others.  However, on July 29, 2020, before the plaintiff received those results, the CEO terminated his employment, allegedly telling him it was because he had COVID symptoms and could not provide a negative test result.

The plaintiff sued under the LAD, contending the company wrongfully terminated him because he was perceived as suffering from COVID-19.  The trial court dismissed his complaint for failure to state a claim, concluding that while COVID-19 is a disease, it was not a disability under the LAD. 

On appeal, the Appellate Division agreed, at least under the facts presented, finding the plaintiff did not meet the threshold element of his perceived disability discrimination claim even if his employer believed he had COVID-19.  Noting “[n]ot every illness will constitute a disability under the LAD,” the Appellate Division further noted that the statute “must be sensibly and practically applied.”  In doing so, the Appellate Division emphasized the transitory nature of the plaintiff’s illness and the sequence of events preceding his termination.  Specifically, the plaintiff only alleged he felt “cold, clammy and weak,” did not allege he sought medical treatment or attention after falling ill, and that he was terminated only after he had told the CEO that his condition had improved and he was well enough to work. The Appellate Division held that under those pleaded facts, the plaintiff failed to show he had a disability, or was perceived as having a disability, even under the LAD’s broad definition of the term.

Impact of the Decision and Recommendations

In Guzman, the Appellate Division provided a dose of common-sense limitations on the scope of what constitutes a disability under the LAD.  While not expressly exempting all COVID-19 infections or similar ailments from the LAD’s protections, the court held that a transient and minor bout of COVID-19 is not a covered disability and, by extension, is unrelated to any “physical disability, infirmity, malformation or disfigurement which is caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness.”  The decision brings the LAD more in line with the EEOC’s recent guidance on whether a person with COVID-19 or “Long COVID” can be “regarded as” an individual with a disability under the ADA. While the court also recognized that such a determination is case-specific and depends on the extent and severity of the illness, it also brought a reasonableness element into considering whether someone with minor symptoms of what may not be a serious medical condition should truly be placed on equal footing with those whom the LAD was designed to protect. 

Employers should therefore be encouraged by the Appellate Division’s self-described “sensible application” of the LAD.  The decision underscores that disability-related inquiries remain highly fact-sensitive.  Using COVID-19 as an example, its effects may impact one employee much differently than another, both in degree and length of symptoms and after-effects.  Employers and their human resources personnel should continue to conduct an individualized assessment and carefully evaluate all disability accommodation requests on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the individualized facts of a particular employee’s circumstances.    

See Footnotes

1 N.J.S.A. 10:5-5(q).

2 Grande v. Saint Clare's Health Sys., 230 N.J. 1, 18 (2017); Dickson v. Cmty. Bus Lines, Inc., 458 N.J. Super. 522, 532 (App. Div. 2019) (citation omitted).

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.