On June 15, a New Jersey jury awarded approximately $11.8 million dollars to an employee whose employer forced her to retire from her job after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The employee, Shelly Pritchett, was diagnosed with MS and exhausted her leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act as well as her employer’s leave policy. Once her leave was exhausted, the employer notified Ms. Pritchett that she must return to work by November 1 or retire. If she did not return to work or retire by that date, the employer stated Ms. Pritchett would be disciplined. Ms. Pritchett sued her employer and was awarded $11.8 million dollars for disability discrimination, which included $10 million in punitive damages – an award designed to punish the employer for willful misconduct.
This substantial jury verdict underscores the importance of engaging in an “interactive process” with employees who put their employers on notice about a potential disability. The purpose of the interactive process is to determine whether the employee can continue to perform his or her job with or without a “reasonable accommodation,” and to determine exactly what accommodation is appropriate for the individual employee. Under state and federal law, a reasonable accommodation can include modifying employee leave policies.
In this case, for example, the employer was found liable because it took a hardline approach to its leave policy and inflexibly applied its policy to a disabled employee. The employer did not engage in an interactive process to determine whether additional leave would have allowed the employee to return to work at a reasonable point in the future. Because the employer failed to do so, the jury awarded a substantial verdict to the employee.
To avoid potential claims of disability discrimination, the interactive process must be handled with great care, on a case-by-case basis. If you have any questions or require assistance in this regard, please do not hesitate to contact one of our Employment and Labor Law attorneys: Tom Ryan, Esq. (firstname.lastname@example.org); Ursula Leo, Esq. (email@example.com); Jessica Jansyn, Esq. (firstname.lastname@example.org); or Michael Darbee, Esq. (email@example.com). Our attorneys can also be reached by phone at (973) 729-1880.