A grocery store did not commit disability discrimination when it fired a manager with Parkinson’s disease for using a painkiller without a prescription, a New Jersey appellate court ruled.
Case: Martin v. Quick Chek Corp., No. A-2637-10T2, 1/18/12, unpublished.
Facts: Erik Martin, a store manager for Quick Chek Corp., was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2000. He told his supervising district leader, Joan Ferry, about his diagnosis and she advised him to keep his illness “hush, hush.”
Martin never mentioned his illness to other human resources personnel, and missed work in 2004 and 2006 because of two mini-strokes. In 2007, he took a two-week leave of absence for depression, and returned to work without repercussions.
In 2008, Martin requested and received a demotion because his medical condition and lack of an assistant manager prevented him from satisfying his work obligations.
On March 17, 2008, he injured his back at work. Martin’s doctor told him to take a Darvocet pill, that had previously been prescribed to Martin’s mother-in-law. Martin visited the doctor the following day, at which time he was prescribed Percocet to manage his pain.
Because Martin had suffered a work-related injury, Quick Chek gave Martin a drug test, and the testing facility learned that he took Darvocet without a prescription. Quick Chek terminated Martin for taking Darvocet without a prescription.
Martin sued Quick Chek for wrongful termination and disability discrimination, under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD).
Robert Grayczek, vice president of Quick Chek’s human resources department, testified that he did not learn about Martin’s Parkinson’s diagnosis until after Martin’s termination.
Procedural History: The trial court granted Quick Chek’s motion for summary judgment, and denied Martin’s request for the court to reconsider its grant of summary judgment.
The trial judge, Judge Rochelle Gizinski, stated in an oral opinion that Martin did not produce any evidence that Quick Chek applied the store’s drug-testing policy selectively, or that Quick Chek would have ignored his positive drug test if human resources was aware of his Parkinson’s diagnosis.
Analysis: At the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Martin challenged several portions of the trial court’s rulings.
First, Martin argued that the trial court should have compelled Quick Chek to allow Martin to access Grayczek’s work notebook, which contained handwritten notes. The appellate court rejected this argument, concluding that the notebook had confidential personnel information about other employees, and that the trial judge acted within her discretion by denying access to the notebook.
Next, Martin argued that genuine issues of material fact existed, and that summary judgment was inappropriate. He contended that there were two factual inconsistencies that were disputes of material facts.
“Martin initially indicated by way of admission of undisputed facts that he told Ferry about his Parkinson’s disease diagnosis in early 2000 and was subsequently promoted in the summer of 2000 at Ferry’s recommendation,” the court wrote. “At his motion for reconsideration, however, he argued that he told Ferry of his Parkinson’s disease after his promotion (in 2000).”
The appellate court determined that the trial court could not and should not consider evidence provided for the first time at a motion for reconsideration, and that it was irrelevant as to when Ferry first became aware of Martin’s illness.
Martin contended that a second factual dispute existed about whether his demotion involved a pay cut, and pointed out for the first time during the motion for reconsideration that his pay had been reduced. The court determined that the trial judge did not have to consider this evidence, because Martin raised it for the first time during a motion for reconsideration.
Lastly, Martin contended that other material issues of fact existed about whether his termination was discriminatory.
The trial judge had concluded that Martin had established a prima facie discrimination case, but the employer had rebutted this by showing a nondiscriminatory reason (a positive drug test) for termination.
“Unquestionably, the company’s drug policy was enforced in a harsh fashion against Martin,” the court wrote. “The company relied completely on the assessment of the testing company that Martin ‘failed’ the drug test. Quick Chek operates in such a way as to delegate total discretion to interpret the drug test results to the testing company. Once deemed to have failed the drug test, an employee is terminated without exception with no apparent right of appeal. In Vargo v. National Exchange Carriers Assn., we held that a company need not investigate possible legal reasons for a positive drug test before taking action with regard to a prospective employee; nor should such a duty exist with respect to existing employees. NJLAD is not offended by a private company’s lack of compassion in these circumstances.”