Villanueva v. Zimmer

10.23.13

In New Jersey, it is now clear that a plaintiff’s finding of disability by the Social Security Administration is not evidential in a civil proceeding. (Villanueva v. Zimmer) 
 
The Villanueva decision significantly limits the Appellate Division’s existing ruling in Golian v. Golian, 344 N.J. Super. 337 (App. Div. 2001), which held the Social Security Administration’s finding of disability was a rebuttable presumption at trial. Golian was an appeal by a plaintiff after the court disallowed a Social Security Administration disability determination at a divorce trial. On appeal, the plaintiff argued that her disability status should have resulted in a presumption of her inability to work. If so, then the burden should have shifted to the defendant to rebut that presumption. The Golian court agreed with plaintiff and determined that the Social Security finding was a rebuttable presumption to be addressed by the defendant at trial. The Villanueva court recognized the validity of the Golian decision, but only under the specific facts of that case.
 
In Villanueva, the plaintiff was injured in a motor vehicle accident. The Social Security Administration issued a four page “Notice of Award” which found him disabled as of the date of the accident.
 
In addition to seeking Social Security Disability benefits, the plaintiff also filed a lawsuit in the Superior Court of New Jersey. At trial, the plaintiff argued that the Social Security Administration determination created a rebuttal presumption that the plaintiff was disabled and unable to work as a consequence of the accident. The trial court disagreed and barred the introduction of the Social Security Administration’s determination of disability at trial. The plaintiff appealed.
 
In reviewing the matter, the Appellate Division was asked to determine whether the Social Security Administration’s determination was admissible as an exception to the hearsay rule. After analyzing the rule, the court determined that the “public records exception” under N.J.R.E. 803 (c)(6) was not applicable as the Social Security Administration finding was not an act done by a public official or an act, condition or event observed by that official.
 
The Appellate Division was next asked whether the probative value of the Social Security Administration's finding outweighed any prejudice that it would create for a defendant. Ultimately, the court recognized that the prejudice to the defendant would far outweigh the probative value of the determination. To that end, it found that the determination was not based on any meaningful adversarial process with respect to the way the Social Security Administration determined the cause, existence and extent of the plaintiff’s disability. Moreover, it recognized that defendants have no input with respect to the disability determination and did not submit any medical defense reports to the administrative law judge.
 
The Villaneuva decision is great news for defendants in New Jersey as it forces a plaintiff to prove his or her case in court without the assistance of a Social Security determination based on a lesser evidentiary standard. In doing so, the court clearly recognized that the determination of disability is one for the jury to make.
 
For more information please contact Laurence Bennett at lbennett@wglaw.com or 856.667.9111.

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