Court Questions Decision to Fire Injured Nurse
Is an injured nurse a threat to patient safety? That’s what New Jersey-based Saint Clare’s Health System believed.
The nurse in question came back from workers’ comp and disability leave only to be fired. The hospital admitted that the termination of the nurse was directly related to her disability, stating that she could not perform the essential duties of her job.
Further, the hospital argued, she was a danger to other patients because her injuries could prohibit her from completing tasks.
The court disagreed.
Shouldering the Burden
Registered nurse Maryanne Grande worked for Saint Clare’s for seven years before she suffered her first work-related injury in 2007. While moving a patient, Grande injured her left shoulder, resulting in surgery and three months of physical therapy before returning to work on light duty. Grande returned to regular duty one month later.
In November 2008, Grande reinjured her left shoulder lifting the legs of an overweight patient. She underwent a second surgery and returned to regular duty two months later.
Finally, in 2010, Grande incurred her most recent injury. A patient was attempting to walk around his bed but lost his balance. Grande caught the patient, but feared she had injured her shoulder again.
An MRI showed she’d injured her cervical spine instead. Another surgery and four months of recuperation under her belt, Grande returned to work for two hours before tapping out. She finally returned two weeks later on light duty.
In August of 2008, Saint Clare’s human resources department led a hospital-wide job system analyses for various nursing positions.
The analysis helped the hospital determine what frequency with which job duties were performed and which tasks were essential to each position. For RNs like Grande, an essential task was frequently lifting 50 pounds from waist to chest.
Though cleared to light duty work in July 2010, Grande was informed by the hospital that she would need to undergo a physical test set up by Saint Clare’s. Grande reported to Kinematic Consultants, Inc. (KCI), for a functional capacity evaluation.
KCI determined that Grande “demonstrated maximum effort” and said she could return to work but would need certain accommodations. The report noted that final determination for return to work deferred to her own physician. Grande was re-examined by her doctor, and was cleared to work with certain restrictions, including occasionally lifting items up to 50 pounds instead of frequently lifting that weight and only transferring patients with assistance.
The next day, Saint Clare’s fired Grande.
Back and Forth in Court
Grande filed a two-count complaint against Saint Clare’s: the first for unlawful discrimination based on a disability and the second for unlawful discrimination based on a perceived disability. Saint Clare’s filed for a summary judgment to which Grande filed a cross motion. Summary judgment was given to Saint Clare’s based on Grande’s inability to show she could perform her job in a way that met hospital standards.
Grande brought her case before an appellate division panel that reversed the summary judgment, stating that the case contained several disputable facts that only a jury could resolve. Saint Clare’s appealed.
The case was brought before the New Jersey Supreme Court. There, Saint Clare’s argued that because Grande was on light duty at the time of her discharge, and both her physician and KCI reported that she needed certain accommodations to complete her duties, Grande could not prove she was capable of performing her RN duties as outlined by the hospital.
Additionally, Saint Clare’s held that because the KCI report provided evidence that Grande’s continued employment was hazardous to her own safety, her work performance could jeopardize the safety of other employees and patients.
Grande countered that the hospital admitted to firing her due to a perceived disability—a prime example of discrimination, she said.
The New Jersey Association for Justice and the National Employment Lawyers Association of New Jersey filed amicus briefs with the Supreme Court in support of Grande. They argued that Saint Clare’s discriminated against the nurse, improperly assumed that Grande would incur another injury and believed that Saint Clare’s should not have carte blanche to decide the essential functions of a nurse’s job.
The Final Word
Under New Jersey law, employers are prohibited from terminating a disabled employee because of their disability. In this case, the court found that Grande presented a viable discrimination claim.
“When terminating a disabled employee because of an inability to abide by [safety] standards, an employer must prove that its standards relate to the employee’s duties and that no reasonable accommodation exists that will allow the employee to continue in her position,” wrote an associate justice.
The court ruled in favor of Grande, allowing for the nurse to take her trial to court.