Appellate Court Rules Workers' Compensation Judges Cannot Award Benefits Higher than the State Legislature Allows

12.07.17

In the matter of Eric Apperman vs. Visiting Nurse Association of Westfield, the Appellate Court upheld the Workers' Compensation Judge's (WCJ) decision that adult dependent children cannot receive more than 450 weeks of dependency benefits pursuant to N.J.S.A. 34:15-13.

In this matter, the dependent's mother, Phyllis Apperman, died in a work-related motor vehicle accident in December 2003. The loss was accepted as compensable by New Jersey Manufacturer's Insurance. A dependency action was filed by Ms. Apperman's husband and the couple's adult disabled son, Harold. It is noted that Harold had been adjudicated as incapacitated since 1988.

A settlement was negotiated between the parties and placed on the record before the Court on February 23, 2007. As part of that settlement, New Jersey Manufacturer's represented to the Court "however, we are here today as he (has) requested benefits for his son as a dependent, and we do stipulate that the son is incompetent and should receive dependency benefits at the amount of 50% of Phyllis Apperman's wages of $800.00. So he will get $400.00/week for 450 weeks and continuing as long as he remains incompetent. Payments shall date back to March 4, 2005."

The settlement was approved by the Judge of Compensation and Harold Apperman did receive his initial 450 weeks of dependency benefits. At the conclusion of 450 weeks, New Jersey Manufacturer's Insurance terminated Harold's dependency benefits. New Jersey Manufacturer's Insurance terminated the benefits pursuant to N.J.S.A. 34:15-13 which provides in pertinent part "in computing compensation to those dependents named in this section...only those under 18 or over 40 years of age shall be included, and then, only for that period in which they are 18 or over 40; provided, however, that payments to such physically or mentally deficient persons as are such for reason dependent shall be made during the full compensation period of 450 weeks."

New Jersey Manufacturer's Insurance argued that it correctly stopped benefits based upon the language of the statute limiting payments to adult dependent children that are physically or mentally deficient to 450 weeks of benefits. The Judge of Compensation ruled that N.J.S.A. 34:15-13 controlled the payment of dependency benefits and "revealed no provision whatsoever for the extension of the 450 week dependency benefit period for a disabled child." The Judge of Compensation further noted that the plain language of the statute as written did not provide for lifetime dependency benefits to an incapacitated child. The Judge further "concluded that the legislature has repeatedly amended this statute to increase benefits. None of these amendments address the issue of lifetime benefits for incapacitated children...and there was no legislative intent to create such a benefit." The Judge ruled that the settlement order entered by NJM was erroneous and the agreement to pay dependency benefits beyond 450 weeks was a mistake of law.

Harold Apperman's father, Eric Apperman, appealed the decision by the WCJ arguing that the terms of the original settlement were specifically negotiated to protect Harold for life. The Appellate Court noted that its review of this case was not based upon a factual disagreement, but rather on issue of law, specifically the interpretation of N.J.S.A. 34:15-13.

To interpret the statute, the Appellate Court first looked to the plain language of the statute. The statute reads "payment to such physically or mentally deficient persons as are for such reason dependent shall be made during the full compensation period of 450 weeks." The Appellate Court found that neither party had "cited any authority, nor have we found any, that would confer jurisdiction on the Division of Workers' Compensation to sanction the payment of dependency benefits for a period exceeding that authorized by statute. "The Appellate Court noted the Judge of Compensation did not have any authority to enforce a settlement order that would extend benefits beyond the statutory limit. While the Appellate Court noted its sympathies for Harold Apperman, it specifically noted that any gap or omission within the statute would have to be corrected by the legislature.

Comment: The Court's ruling reinforces the existing case law that "the Workers' Compensation Division is a purely statutory tribunal whose jurisdiction has been precisely defined by the legislature. No equity jurisdiction was conferred to it." See Lynch vs. Newark, 43 NJ Super. 546, 550 (CTY. CT. 1957). The Compensation Court does not have the power to extend benefits outside the statute.

For more information, please contact Richard D. Arnold at rarnold@wglaw.com or 973.242.2706.

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