A.D.P. v. EXXONMOBIL RESEARCH Docket No. A-4806-10T4
54 A.3d 813 (2012)
428 N.J. Super. 518
A.D.P., Plaintiff-Appellant, v. EXXONMOBIL RESEARCH AND ENGINEERING COMPANY, Defendant-Respondent.
Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division.
Decided October 26, 2012.
Sara Fern Meil argued the cause for appellant.
John B. McCusker argued the cause for respondent (McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen & Carvelli, P.C., attorneys; Mr. McCusker and Michael R. Futterman, Florham Park, on the brief).
Before Judges YANNOTTI, ESPINOSA and KENNEDY.
The opinion of the court was delivered by ESPINOSA, J.A.D.
In this appeal, we consider whether summary judgment was properly granted to an employer that required a long-term employee whose job performance was satisfactory to submit to random alcohol testing and terminated her employment when a test showed she had used alcohol. Because the record revealed that the basis for the testing and termination was the employee's voluntary disclosure that she was an alcoholic and not the result of inadequate job performance, the imposition of these conditions constituted direct evidence of discrimination. As a result, the burden of persuasion shifted to the employer, requiring it to show that the employment actions taken would have occurred even if it had not considered plaintiff's disability, see McDevitt v. Bill Good Builders, Inc.,
Many of the facts here are undisputed. As to those on which the parties disagree, we view the facts in the light most favorable to plaintiff. See R. 4:46-2(c).
In 2007, defendant ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company (ExxonMobil or defendant), required plaintiff A.D.P., an employee of twenty-nine years, to sign an agreement that required her to totally abstain from alcohol and submit to
The motion judge agreed, granting summary judgment and dismissing plaintiff's complaint, which alleged that (1) defendant violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49, by discriminating against her because of her disability; and (2) that her termination violated public policy, see Pierce v. Ortho Pharm. Corp.,
Plaintiff was initially hired by a predecessor company as a research technician in 1978. She received promotions in 1983, 1985, 1987, 1990, 1993, 1998 and 2000. ExxonMobil evaluates its employees on an annual basis, ranking them in order from highest performing employees to the lowest. Through much of her career, A.D.P. was consistently ranked as a top performer. Hans Thomann, who later supervised plaintiff, described her in the earlier years as "the go-getter. She was the go-to person to get things done."
In 2004, plaintiff's husband died. She suffered from depression thereafter, as noticed by her co-workers, and other medical conditions. Nonetheless, in April 2005, she was promoted to the position of Senior Research Associate. In this new position, her ranking dropped but she remained in the middle third of employees.
ExxonMobil had a "performance improvement plan" for employees who failed
The Policy that ExxonMobil applied to plaintiff states, in part:
On August 17, 2007, plaintiff voluntarily disclosed to a nurse at ExxonMobil that she was an alcoholic and intended to check herself into a rehabilitation program to address her alcohol dependency and depression. Plaintiff was not the subject of any pending or threatened disciplinary action. There was no evidence that she had consumed alcohol or was intoxicated at work, let alone that she had violated ExxonMobil's Policy by being "unfit for work because of use of drugs or alcohol[.]" And, she had not been advised that her job performance had fallen to an unacceptable level. Both Katharine Ramos, defendant's Products Research Human Resources Advisor, and Rose Villarreal, a Human Resources Manager, testified they first learned that plaintiff was an alcoholic when she self-reported and was hospitalized.
Plaintiff was hospitalized at Carrier Clinic from August 20 to September 8, 2007, and participated in outpatient treatment afterward at Hunterdon Medical Center. Following treatment, plaintiff met with defendant's representatives and signed an after-care contract on October 29, 2007. The after-care contract was required by the Policy, which provides in pertinent part:
Plaintiff testified that she signed the contract because she felt "threatened" that if she did not sign it, she would lose her job. Linda Hofmann, a planning manager, testified that it was her understanding that, once plaintiff self-reported her alcoholism, she was required to sign the contract as part of ExxonMobil's after-care program. When asked if A.D.P. was required to sign the contract because of any performance issues, Hofmann stated, "No. Unrelated."
The after-care contract provides in part:
It is undisputed that employees not identified as alcoholics were not required to sign such a contract and were not subject to alcohol testing except for cause, as set forth in the Policy:
Aside from her admitted alcoholism, none of the conditions identified as a basis for testing applied to plaintiff. Between October 29, 2007 and August 20, 2008, ExxonMobil administered nine random breathalyzer tests to plaintiff, all of which she passed. Two days after she passed the last of these tests, plaintiff was required to take additional breathalyzer tests. The laboratory report describes the tests as "random," indicating they were administered pursuant to the after-care contract she was required to sign. No evidence was presented that she was intoxicated or that her behavior that day gave defendant reasonable cause to believe she had been drinking alcohol at work. The breathalyzer tests administered on August 22, 2008 produced blood alcohol concentration (BAC) readings of .047 and .043.
Plaintiff's employment was terminated on August 26, 2008. Katharine Ramos gave the following testimony regarding plaintiff's termination:
Hans Thomann, plaintiff's supervisor during 2006 and 2007, also testified that he never recommended that A.D.P. be terminated and never intended to do so. Therefore, the record before the motion judge supported the conclusion that plaintiff did not violate the condition of her after-care contract that required her to "maintain acceptable work performance."
Plaintiff filed the complaint in this action, alleging disability discrimination and wrongful termination. After discovery was completed, plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment and defendant filed a cross-motion for summary judgment. The motion judge denied plaintiff's motion, a decision she does not appeal, and granted summary judgment to defendant, dismissing the complaint in its entirety.
In this appeal, plaintiff argues that the motion judge erred in dismissing her LAD claim because ExxonMobil admittedly subjected her to additional terms and conditions of employment because of her disability in violation of the LAD and that no legally justifiable basis was provided for such disparate treatment. She also argues that the court erred in dismissing her Pierce claim because the forced alcohol testing violated a clear public policy.
All motions for summary judgment are judged pursuant to the standards set forth in Rule 4:46-2 and the guidance provided in Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am.,
Our analysis of plaintiff's LAD claim begins with the controlling language of the statute. The LAD declares that it is an unlawful employment practice or an unlawful discrimination "[f]or an employer, because of the ... disability ... of any individual,... to discharge ... or to discriminate against such individual ... in terms, conditions or privileges of employment[,]" N.J.S.A. 10:5-12(a), "unless the nature and extent of the disability reasonably precludes the performance of the particular employment[.]" N.J.S.A. 10:5-4.1. Further, the LAD does not "prevent the
Plaintiff alleges that the imposition of a standard of conduct based solely upon her disability and her termination for non-compliance with that standard constituted disparate treatment in violation of the LAD. These claims may be proven by either direct or circumstantial evidence.
"[D]irect evidence of intentional discrimination is hard to come by." Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins,
A plaintiff who relies upon circumstantial evidence to prove unlawful disability discrimination must present prima facie evidence of discrimination, i.e., that (1) she was handicapped within the meaning of the law; (2) she "had been performing  her work at a level that met the employer's legitimate expectations;" (3) she "nevertheless had been required to labor under conditions that were unreasonably different from those of other employees, had been transferred, or had been fired; and (in the case of discriminatory transfer or discharge) (4) the employer had sought another to perform the same work after [she] had been removed from the position." Maher v. N.J. Transit Rail Operations, Inc.,
Defendant does not dispute that plaintiff satisfied her burden of presenting a prima facie case of discrimination. Accordingly, if the McDonnell Douglas analysis applied, the burden of production would shift to defendant to present a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for its actions. See Jansen, supra, 110 N.J. at 382,
However, in the less common case in which there is direct evidence of discrimination, the McDonnell Douglas analysis does not apply. Healey v. Southwood Psychiatric Hosp.,
Direct evidence of discrimination is evidence "that an employer placed substantial reliance on a proscribed discriminatory factor in making its decision to take the adverse employment action[.]" McDevitt, supra, 175 N.J. at 527,
In determining whether a plaintiff has presented direct evidence, "a court must consider whether a statement made by a decisionmaker associated with the decisionmaking process actually bore on the employment decision at issue and communicated proscribed animus." McDevitt, supra, 175 N.J. at 528,
Thus, stray remarks unrelated to the decisional process, such as an employer's comment that "everyone over 35 should be sacked" and references to older employees as "little old ladies" and "old cows," have been characterized as circumstantial evidence, while "a scrap of paper saying, `Fire Rollins — she is too old'" was an example of direct evidence. Bergen Commercial Bank, supra, 157 N.J. at 208-09,
The evidence A.D.P. relies upon does not suffer from any ambiguity. The Policy's requirements of total abstinence and a minimum of two years of random testing were only imposed upon employees who were identified as alcoholics, demonstrating "hostility toward members of the employee's class." Proof of the "direct causal connection between that hostility and the challenged employment decision"
In light of this direct evidence of discrimination, the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework, which only shifts a burden of production to defendant, is inapplicable. Instead, the Price Waterhouse analysis applies and the burden of persuasion shifts to ExxonMobil, "to prove that even if it had not considered the proscribed factor, the employment action would have occurred." McDevitt, supra, 175 N.J. at 527,
To prevail on its summary judgment motion, ExxonMobil had to show that its Policy and actions were justified as a matter of law under either of the statutory provisions that protect employers' prerogatives to manage their businesses as they see fit. Viscik v. Fowler Equip. Co., Inc.,
And, specific to the disability discrimination case, the employer may discriminate against an employee with a disability if "the nature and extent of the disability reasonably precludes the performance of the particular employment." N.J.S.A. 10:5-4.1. The Supreme Court observed:
Thus, if the record showed that A.D.P. was unable to adequately perform the duties of her employment, ExxonMobil had the right to terminate or change the conditions of her employment. However, ExxonMobil does not attempt to support its actions by arguing that she failed to perform her job. In essence, ExxonMobil has chosen not to defend its actions under a Price Waterhouse analysis by proving it would have subjected plaintiff to random testing and terminated her employment for consuming alcohol even if she were not an alcoholic. Rather, ExxonMobil justifies its actions based only upon the "reasonableness" of its Policy.
Even if well-intentioned and rational, the reasonableness of a policy must be measured within the context of the specific employee's job performance. When an employee's job performance has not been adversely affected by the disability,
Notwithstanding its benign purpose, ExxonMobil's Policy plainly imposed additional conditions upon plaintiff's employment that were not imposed upon other employees who were not alcoholics. Therefore, ExxonMobil assumed the burden to prove its affirmative defense, establishing that its facially discriminatory actions were permitted by the statutory exceptions.
Granting plaintiff all legitimate inferences, the record supports the conclusion that plaintiff's job performance played no role in either the imposition of the conditions in the after-care contract or in her termination. Therefore, summary judgment could not be granted to ExxonMobil on the grounds that its action was justified by either N.J.S.A. 10:5-4.1 or the performance aspect of N.J.S.A. 10:5-2.1. Further, while the standard applicable to all employees — that one may not be "unfit for work because of use of drugs or alcohol" — is a reasonable one, see, e.g., Barbera v. DiMartino,
ExxonMobil argues that it was entitled to summary judgment under either a McDonnell Douglas analysis or a direct evidence Price Waterhouse analysis because either permits it to justify its actions by presenting a "legitimate non-discriminatory justification for the Policy and its required After-Care Contract[.]" It argues that its justification was twofold: (1) "it has a legitimate business reason — the health, safety and effective functioning of its employees — to implement such a policy[,]" and (2) the Policy "recognizes that there exists a cure for alcoholism, however, without continuous treatment, there is a high rate of relapse[,]" and therefore, the Policy constitutes a reasonable accommodation of plaintiff's alcoholism.
In advancing this argument, ExxonMobil fails to acknowledge the burden of persuasion
ExxonMobil's first justification for the application of its Policy to plaintiff conflates two defenses, the "business necessity" defense
The "safety" defense to an LAD claim permits an employer to "consider whether the handicapped person can do his or her work without posing a serious threat of injury to the health and safety of himself or herself or other employees." Jansen, supra, 110 N.J. at 374,
"When asserting the safety defense, the employer must establish with a reasonable degree of certainty that it reasonably arrived at the opinion that the employee's handicap presented a materially enhanced risk of substantial harm in the workplace." Jansen, supra, 110 N.J. at 383,
The mere fact that an employee has a particular disability will not justify such a conclusion. "The employer may not assume that harm will result, nor may it act on the fears and prejudices of other employees." Barbera, supra, 305 N.J.Super. at 632 n. 5, 702 A.2d 1370; see Jansen, supra, 110 N.J. at 374,
Defendant's Policy contains the general observation "that alcohol, drug, or other substance abuse by employees will impair their ability to perform properly[.]" From this observation, ExxonMobil makes the assumption that such abuse "will have serious adverse effects on the safety, efficiency and productivity of other employees and the Corporation as a whole." The Policy draws no distinction between alcohol abuse
The "safety" defense requires the employer to "make `an individualized assessment of the safety risk,' which must include objective medical evidence as well as `relevant records such as the employee's work and medical histories.'" Barbera, supra, 305 N.J.Super. at 632 n. 5, 702 A.2d 1370 (quoting Jansen, supra, 110 N.J. at 379,
Although the LAD includes "significantly broader" definitions for disability, see Victor v. State,
As further assistance in interpreting the LAD, we look to the interpretation and application of the ADA. Bosshard v. Hackensack Univ. Med. Ctr.,
The EEOC identified factors an employer should consider in determining whether to subject an employee to periodic alcohol testing, such as
In addition, "the duration and frequency of the testing must be designed to address particular safety concerns[.]" Ibid. So, when an employee "repeatedly has tested negative for alcohol, continued testing may not be job-related and consistent with business necessity because the employer no longer may have a reasonable belief that the employee will pose a direct threat." Ibid.
There is no evidence in the record that an individualized assessment of any kind was conducted here. To the contrary, ExxonMobil defends its actions as requirements it uniformly imposed as a matter of policy upon any identified alcoholic. The Policy mandates random testing for a minimum of two years and monitoring for an additional three years without regard to any circumstances unique to the employee. Reliance upon such blanket requirements merely confirms the facially discriminatory nature of the Policy rather than establishing any affirmative defense to the allegation of unlawful discrimination. See Jansen, supra, 110 N.J. at 378,
There are, then, serious deficiencies in the proofs ExxonMobil presents to support a "safety" defense. Defendant has not identified any substantial injury to plaintiff or others in the workplace or presented any evidence that such injury would probably be caused by her alcoholism in the absence of its actions. Most notably, there was no individualized assessment of the risk posed by plaintiff to justify a Policy-driven period of random testing or termination based upon one incident of alcohol use. The state of the evidence therefore precludes a conclusion that ExxonMobil established a "safety" defense as a matter of law, justifying summary judgment.
The second justification advanced by defendant is that the Policy constitutes a "reasonable accommodation" because it "recognizes that there exists a cure for alcoholism, however, without continuous treatment, there is a high rate of relapse." In support of this statement, ExxonMobil cites its own Policy and a website from Carrier Clinic. The former is self-serving. The website does not contain such a statement
Defendant's characterization of its Policy as a "reasonable accommodation" also fails. The Supreme Court has instructed that there are only two instances in which reasonable accommodation is an issue:
Plaintiff did not allege a cause of action based upon a failure to accommodate her disability. And, as noted, defendant has conceded both plaintiff's ability to do her job and that her job performance played no role in her termination. Therefore, reasonable accommodation was not an issue, in this case.
However, even if we disregarded the Supreme Court's guidance, the facts here do not support a characterization of defendant's actions as a reasonable accommodation. The goal of a reasonable accommodation is to allow "a disabled employee to perform the essential functions of his job." Tynan v. Vicinage 13 of the Sup.Ct. of N.J.,
The reasonable accommodation process begins with a request by the employee for an accommodation that will allow him or her to perform the essential functions of the job. The employer is then prompted to "initiate an informal interactive process with the employee" in which each has a duty to act in good faith. Tynan, supra, 351 N.J.Super. at 400,
Plaintiff's request for leave to attend an in-patient rehabilitation program may fairly be considered a request for an accommodation. However, the reasonable accommodation process ended here when ExxonMobil allowed her to obtain those services. Plaintiff made no additional requests for accommodations to enable her to perform the essential functions of her job. There was no interactive process. Defendant dictated the purported accommodation, the terms of the after-care contract, and required plaintiff to agree to its terms if she wanted to keep her job. There is no evidence that the after-care contract's requirements were devised to eliminate barriers to plaintiff's ability to do her job.
In sum, the issue of reasonable accommodation is not present here by virtue of either plaintiff's claims or ExxonMobil's defenses. The actions defendant seeks to justify were imposed without an interactive process. Since plaintiff's job performance was not a factor in these actions, the requirements imposed on plaintiff were not for the purpose of eliminating barriers or allowing plaintiff to perform essential functions of her job that might have been more difficult because of her disability. In short, it is a misnomer to call the conditions
Plaintiff also argues that the trial judge erred in dismissing her claim that she was wrongfully terminated in violation of public policy, see Pierce, supra, 84 N.J. at 72,
Citing Hennessey v. Coastal Eagle Point Oil Co.,
In summary, we conclude that the trial court erred by granting summary judgment in favor of ExxonMobil on the disability claim. We are convinced that, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiff, plaintiff presented direct evidence of unlawful discrimination on the basis of her disability and ExxonMobil did not present sufficient evidence to establish as a matter of law that the disputed Policy and actions were justified under either N.J.S.A. 10:5-2.1 or N.J.S.A. 10:5-4.1. We are additionally convinced that ExxonMobil did not establish as a matter of law either an affirmative defense or that its Policy represented a reasonable accommodation for plaintiff's disability.
We emphasize that our decision that ExxonMobil was not entitled to summary judgment is based on the evidentiary record and arguments that ExxonMobil presented here and in the trial court. As we noted previously, ExxonMobil has presented evidence which it contends indicates that plaintiff's job performance was adversely affected by her use of alcohol. Plaintiff has disputed that evidence and, as we pointed out, Katherine Ramos testified that plaintiff was terminated because of the results of the breathalyzer test, not for performance reasons.
We express no opinion as to whether the evidence of plaintiff's job performance or the evidence that her job performance was adversely affected by her use of alcohol was sufficient to provide a legitimate, alternative basis for her termination. We hold only that, viewing the evidence before the trial court on the summary judgment motions in a light most favorable to plaintiff, this factual issue could not be resolved as a matter of law in ExxonMobil's favor.
The order granting summary judgment is affirmed as to the dismissal of the Pierce wrongful termination claim, reversed as to the LAD claim, and remanded for further proceedings in conformity with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.
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