TRENTON, NJ - The North Plainfield public school district has paid a former employee $35,000 to resolve allegations it engaged in disability-based discrimination by firing her for “job abandonment” after she missed the last three weeks of a school year due to gallbladder surgery, Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino and the Division on Civil Rights announced today.
“This is an important settlement, one that addresses a significant issue for countless New Jersey residents who have jobs and, unfortunately, might one day find themselves dealing with a medical problem or disability that causes them to be out of work for a substantial period of time,” said Attorney General Porrino. “In this case, a longtime employee whose prior 13 years of service included no attendance issues got sick, had surgery, provided her employer with written medical authorization for her extended absence, and nonetheless lost her job. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) was designed to protect workers from this very kind of treatment.”
The school district is required under a finalized settlement agreement to update its policies and procedures concerning worker requests for medical leave and must provide training on those updated policies and procedures for all supervisors, managers and employees who receive such requests.
The Division on Civil Rights is withholding the woman’s name to protect her medical privacy and she is referred to as M.G.
The Attorney General provided the following account:
M.G. was hired in 2000 by the North Plainfield school district to work part-time as a paraprofessional and until 2014, all of her evaluations were satisfactory, and there were no references in those prior evaluations to problems with absenteeism.
In the 2013-14 school year M.G., who worked at the district’s East End Elementary School as a one-on-one instructional aide for a second-grade student, began to experience health problems.
In May 2014, East End School’s principal evaluated M.G. and rated her as “Needs Attention” for attendance. The principal noted that M.G. had used 13 sick days, two personal days and one bereavement day as of the end of April 2014. In that same evaluation, however, he recommended that M.G.’s employment contract for the coming school year be renewed.
M.G.’s symptoms subsequently worsened, and her physician advised that she would require gallbladder surgery. M.G. underwent the surgery on June 4, 2014 – a day after telling her supervisor’s secretary that she needed an operation and would miss the rest of the school year, and being advised by the secretary to submit a doctor’s note.
Some aspects of what followed were disputed in the litigation, but what was not disputed is that M.G. did obtain a doctor’s note – ostensibly to be faxed to her employer – saying the surgery would require her to remain out of work for as long as four weeks. The note was dated June 5, 2014.
It remains unclear when or if the original physician’s note was actually received by the school district. The district claimed at one point during its back-and-forth with M.G. that it had not received the note, and as a result did not intend to pay M.G. sick leave for her time missed.
Subsequently, in a June 17, 2014 letter from then-North Plainfield Superintendent Marilyn Birnbaum, the district advised M.G. that her employment contract would not be renewed for the following school year.
In addition to allegedly telling M.G. she had “abandoned” her position, the Birnbaum letter noted that M.G. had failed to enter her anticipated long-term sick leave into the district’s computerized data system – known as Aesop – but rather had been entering her absences on a day-to-day basis. This, the Superintendent noted, made it “extremely difficult” to assign the same substitute each day to cover M.G.’s instructional aide duties (which would be the preferred method, because continuity would be important for the student in such a one-to-one educational setting.)
M.G. responded by writing to Birnbaum and requesting that her termination be reconsidered. As part of the effort to retain her job, M.G. had her husband hand-deliver to the district a copy of the original physician’s note excusing her for two-to-four weeks, along with a second physician’s note – dated June 23, 2014 – confirming that M.G. remained in his care.
Birnbaum subsequently acknowledged receipt of M.G.’s letter, and also acknowledged receipt of the two doctor’s notes hand-delivered by M.G.’s husband.
In her response, the Superintendent advised M.G. that she would be paid after all for the sick time she took between June 2 and June 19. However, Birnbaum’s letter made no mention of M.G.’s request for reconsideration of the decision not to rehire her.
M.G. subsequently told Division investigators that she’d provided the district with a Disability Certificate from her doctor dated July 11, 2014 stating that she’d undergone surgery on June 4, 2014 and would be able to return to work without limitations as of July 14, 2014.
M.G. also told the Division she never received any formal training on the Aesop system, and that she was unaware absences could be logged into the system for more than one day at a time. (M.G. provided Division investigators with a copy of a training letter she received in August 2009 announcing the Aesop system and explaining the procedures for its usage. The training letter makes no mention of procedures for logging in long-term absences.)
“The fact that providing a reasonable accommodation to a worker with a disability may involve some effort, or even difficulty, does not absolve the employer from its legal obligation to do so,” said Division Director Craig T. Sashihara. “Under the law, employers must engage in an interactive process to determine if a reasonable accommodation can be put into place, and we will make every effort to ensure that private and public employers across the State follow the law.”