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New Jersey Appeals Court Upholds Disabled Guard’s $236,000 Award

On June 30, 2006, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, upheld a jury’s award of $236,000 to a former Gloucester County jail guard who claimed he was forced to retire because of an eye disability.

Plaintiff Michael Raspa, who began working as a jail guard for the Gloucestor County Sheriff’s Office in July 1984, developed Graves Disease in 1999. The disease secondarily resulted in opthalmopathy, a condition that caused his eyes to protrude from their sockets, sensitivity to light, and double vision. Raspa’s doctor consequently advised him to perform only duties with minimal prisoner contact in order to reduce the risk of eye trauma.

The Sheriff’s Office initially accommodated Raspa’s condition by allowing him to work in the jail’s control room and visitation area. In July 2002, however, the Office forced Raspa to retire from his $50,000 per year job after concluding that he could not perform his duties as required because no position was free of prisoner contact.

Raspa sued the Sheriff’s office in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) claiming the Sheriff “failed to reasonably accommodate his handicap and wrongfully terminated his employment.” A jury found in Raspa’s favor and awarded him $236,000 for economic loss from July 1, 2002 through June 30, 2009, the date Raspa would have been eligible to retire.

Following the verdict the judge granted Raspa’s post-verdict motion for attorney fees and costs, though without a lodestar enhancement, in the amount of $27,000. The judge also set aside the jury’s affirmative verdict as to future economic loss because “Raspa failed during the jury trial to produce an expert to establish such damages.”

In an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division concluded that most of the issues raised in the parties’ cross-appeals were “without sufficient merit” and warranted only the following comments:

1) Under the NJLAD it is illegal for an employer “‘to deny an otherwise qualified person with a disability the opportunity to obtain or maintain’ a job solely on the basis of the individual’s disability,” N.J.S.A. 10:5-29.1.

2) The jury had sufficient evidence from which to reasonably conclude that Raspa’s condition could have been accommodated without being overly burdensome to the Sheriff because: Raspa’s attendance was never at issue, he was allowed to work at an existing position with minimal prisoner contact for over three years and performed this job satisfactorily, and he did not request the creation of a new position but merely sought continued assignment to the existing position.

3. The issue of Raspa’s future economic damages should have never gone to the jury since he failed to provide related expert testimony. Raspa was represented by attorney David Avedissian. A petition for certiorari was filed and pending. See: Raspa v. Office of the Sheriff of County of Gloucester, not reported in A.2d, 2006 WL 1788282 (NJ Super.A.D.).
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Related legal case

Raspa v. Office of the Sheriff of County of Gloucester