In Robinson v. First Energy and the Second Injury Fund, decided on September 11, 2014, the Appellate Division affirmed a trial court’s decision to dismiss an employee’s claim for lack of compensability, overturning an earlier trial decision that awarded benefits and found the incident compensable.
In this matter, an employee filed an occupational stress claim arising from a purported workplace incident where she said two truck drivers looked at her in a threatening manner when she drove into the wrong entrance of a parking lot. Along with that petition, she filed a Motion for Medical and Temporary Disability Benefits that was tried to conclusion. The initial trial judge was sympathetic to her claim and entered an April 2005 order finding compensability and ruled the employer had to supply medical and temporary disability benefits.
The matter was disputed from its outset, with the employer denying that a statutorily compensable event took place. The employer supplied factual and expert trial testimony. After the initial order was entered, the employer appealed. That interlocutory appeal was rejected by the Appellate Division in June 2005. As a result of the initial Order for Treatment, the employee received extensive medical and temporary disability benefits.
At the conclusion of treatment, the employee claimed she was ‘totally disabled overall’ and brought the Second Injury Fund into the litigation in October 2008, alleging total and permanent disability. At trial, the Second Injury Fund Deputy Attorney General specified on the record that compensability remained at issue and the employee’s counsel concurred verbally to the judge.
During the permanency trial, a different judge presided. During initial oral trial stipulations, the Second Injury Fund Deputy Attorney General noted on the record that compensability remained at issue and the employee’s counsel concurred verbally to the judge. At the conclusion of the employee’s testimony, but prior to any expert witness testimony, the trial judge (after allowing briefs on the issue), dismissed the claims against the employer and the Second Injury Fund, determining that the employee’s injury did not rise to the statutory level of a compensable psychiatric disability. Those Dismissal Orders were entered on November 9, 2011.
The employee appealed, claiming three primary issues: a) the issue of compensability was decided on the initial Motion for Med/Temp; b) the second trial judge improperly exercised his discretion to overturn that initial ruling; c) and that, since the Pretrial Memorandum did not set forth compensability as an issue prior to trial, that the court should not have found compensability at issue during trial.
The first two issues were soundly rejected by the Appellate Division for two reasons. Initially, using Lombardi v. Masso, 207 N.J. 517 (2011,), the Appellate Division opined that a trial court could exercise its discretion to review, revise, reconsider or modify its interlocutory orders at any time prior to the entry of final judgment provided that any revision or reconsideration be with good cause and the ultimate goal of substantial justice. They also noted that, since the first appeal was rejected as interlocutory, that the findings of the initial, motion judge were capable of further review at the permanency trial.
Further, in regard to the breadth of judicial discretion of the trial judge, the Robinson Appellate Court also affirmed the trial judge’s rejection of compensability, noting that 1) the underlying 2005 Med and Temp decision had serious issues as whether the Motion Judge properly followed the law; and 2) to bind the Second Injury Fund, who objected to compensability and was also not a part of the initial Motion Trial, would be fundamentally unfair.
Finally, the Robinson Court rejected the argument on deficiencies of the Pretrial Memorandum, noting that employee’s attorney was not only on notice of compensability being at issue throughout the case, but that they also verbally stipulated to it being at issue at the beginning of the trial. Therefore, they effectively waived this argument by their verbal consent at trial.
All of the issues on appeal were technical in nature. The employee’s counsel did NOT challenge the trial judge’s opinion that the employee’s emotional distress had failed to meet the appropriate legal standards. However, since the Second Injury Fund raised the issues, the Appellate Division relied upon Williams v. W. Electric Co., 178 N.J. Super. 571 (App. Div. 1981) and Goyden v. State, Judiciary, Superior Court of NJ, 438 (App. Div. 1991), aff’d o.b., 128 N.J. 54 (1992) and noted the high standards that needed to be proven in order to maintain a psychiatric compensation case.
The findings in this case uphold a judge’s ability to review and ultimately change an interlocutory order if done before a final judgment. They also uphold the very difficult standard of proving a psychiatric disability claim in New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Court.
For more information, please contact Joseph W. Borucki at firstname.lastname@example.org or 856.667.5807.
Sara L. De Long