The Superior Court has Jurisdiction to Determine Issues of Employment

02.28.22

Category: New Jersey

Although not entirely a workers’ compensation case, the Appellate Court recently ruled in favor of a plaintiff involving a procedural issue. The plaintiff was a volunteer firefighter struck by a South Hackensack fire truck. At the time, he alleges, the individual defendants were using the truck to bar hop. Instead of filing his claim within the Workers’ Compensation Division, the plaintiff filed a complaint for personal injury damages in the Law Division. In November 2020, the defendants moved to dismiss asserting that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction, that the Workers’ Compensation Division had exclusive jurisdiction and the plaintiff’s sole remedy was to be found, if at all, in the Workers’ Compensation Act. The motion judge rejected the argument that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction but found the Workers’ Compensation Court had primary jurisdiction and transferred the matter.

Despite the motion judge’s transfer order, the Division would not adjudicate the case unless the plaintiff filed a petition for benefits. Refusing to do so, the plaintiff moved to the trial court for reinstatement of his complaint. The motion was denied, but the judge wrote to the Division providing notification of her transfer order.

The Division’s supervising judge reconfirmed that the matter would not be adjudicated unless the plaintiff filed a claim petition for benefits. The plaintiff then moved in the trial court, once again, for reconsideration. The judge again denied relief, declaring she would not reconsider or reinstate the matter until both parties cooperated to have the threshold issue addressed in the Division. The plaintiff instead filed a notice of appeal and moved for a determination about the appealability of the trial court order transferring the matter to the Division. The Appellate Division, even if the order was interlocutory, granted the leave to appeal and accelerated it. 

The Appellate Division concluded that the invocation of the primary jurisdiction doctrine was a mistake by the trial judge. The court noted that the four grounds for the invocation of the primary jurisdiction doctrine weighed heavily in the petitioner’s favor. The Appellate Court stated that the issue is: 

  1. A matter often determined by trial judges and juries 
  2. The Division may be best suited for the determination, but the issue is not unfamiliar with the court and 
  3. There is no risk of inconsistent ruling because 
  4. The plaintiff declined to file a claim petition in the Division.

Acknowledging that these four factors favor the plaintiff’s position, the Appellate Court concluded that the judge abused her discretion in having the plaintiff prosecute a claim in another forum for the sole purpose of proving this other forum lacks jurisdiction over the claim.

The Appellate Court held that both forums are equipped to handle the issue under review. Since the plaintiff commenced his action in Superior Court, he was entitled to pursue the matter until the defendants, if ever, show the occurrence falls within the worker’s compensation laws. The Workers’ Compensation Division does not have exclusive jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s claim. The order was reversed, the transfer order was vacated, and the matter was remanded for the entry of an order denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss.

Comment: Although a Workers’ Compensation Division is best suited to determine issues of whether an accident arose out of and during the course of employment and other employment issues, the Superior Court has jurisdiction and is capable of handling and making these decisions as well. Those of us who practice in the field of workers’ compensation do not necessarily agree with this position and have found that the Superior Court has misapplied the law in workers' compensation in other areas, including whether an employment relationship exists. 

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Ralph Richardson
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rrichardson@wglaw.com

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