Petitioner Gary Streeper appealed his November 8, 2019, Order which dismissed his Application for Review or Modification of a compensation award on the basis it was untimely filed. The order was vacated and remanded.
The petitioner was employed by the state of New Jersey when on April 15, 2003, he sustained a compensable injury to his right leg and knee. The petitioner received authorized medical treatment. On September 8, 2008, the workers' compensation court entered a judgment approving a settlement for the 2003 incident.
Subsequently, the petitioner sought additional medical treatment and compensation for his injuries. The State authorized right knee replacement surgery and additional compensation. He last received temporary disability compensation for the 2003 incident on April 8, 2011, and last received payment for medical treatment for the 2003 incident on February 1, 2012.
After more than seven years since the last benefit, on July 24, 2019, the petitioner filed an Application for Review or Modification of his award relating to the 2003 incident. He alleged the injuries to his right leg and knee had worsened after entry of the judgment, and alleged right knee replacement surgery as evidence of his worsening condition.
The State filed an answer asserting that the workers' compensation court lacked jurisdiction because it was filed beyond the two-year statute of limitations.
The petitioner acknowledged that the application relating to the 2003 incident was filed beyond the statutory period. He argued that the judge should exercise her authority to relax the two-year period and reopen the judgment relating to the 2003 claim on the basis of a mistake, or amend a then-pending, timely filed, November 25, 2013, application of an award he received for a claim relating to injury he suffered in 2000.
The petitioner argued that in 2010 he had multiple compensation claims simultaneously pending. The State provided the treatment requested for both injuries without the need to file a reopener of either claim, even though both claims had, at that point, been settled. The petitioner received a left knee replacement on October 20, 2010, two months prior to the replacement of his right knee.
According to the petitioner, beginning in September 2010, at the direction of the Division of Workers' Compensation, the additional medical treatment for both the 2000 incident and the 2003 incident were administered under a single petition number, 02-7846. He argued that the administrative treatment of the claims as a single claim left his counsel with the impression that both claims would in the future be treated as a single claim under petition number 02-7846. In addition, he noted the State’s workers’ compensation carrier assigned a single claim number in its records to the additional medical treatment relating to both the 2000 and 2003 incidents, including the knee replacements.
On November 25, 2013, the petitioner’s counsel filed a reopener under petition number 02-7846 intending it to apply to both the 2000 and 2003 incidents. The application, however, States that the injury at issue occurred on March 10, 2000, and was last settled on February 2, 2009. Those dates correspond to the 2000 incident. There is no indication on the face of the application that it applies to the award for the 2003 incident.
The judge of compensation issued an opinion granting the State's motion. She found that the July 24, 2019 application was filed more than seven years after the petitioner’s final receipt of a payment on February 1, 2012, long past the two-year statute of limitations set in N.J.S.A. 34:15-27. The judge concluded she was without authority to depart from the two-year statute of limitations and dismissed the petitioner’s July 24, 2019 application for lack of jurisdiction.
The petitioner then appealed and argued the judge of compensation erred when she failed to recognize and exercise her authority to correct his counsel's reasonable mistake by reopening the judgment relating to the 2003 claim.
The Appellate Court noted that it has held that "[t]he two[-]year time limit mandated by N.J.S.A. 34:15-27 for submitting an Application for Review or Modification is a jurisdictional requirement." Bey v. Truss Sys., Inc., 360 N.J. Super. 324, 327 (App. Div. 2003). "The Workers' Compensation Court is an administrative court, not a constitutional court. Its jurisdiction is limited to that granted by the Legislature and therefore 'cannot be inflated by consent, waiver, estoppel or judicial inclination.'" Id. at 327 (quoting Riccioni v. Am. Cyanamid Co., 26 N.J. Super. 1, 5 (App. Div. 1953)).
The Appellate Court agreed with the petitioner's argument that the legal inquiry did not end there. There are exceptional circumstances to suggest that limitations periods in the WCA should not be applied. Camp v. Lockheed Elec., Inc., 178 N.J. Super. 535, 546 (App. Div. 1981). The holding in Camp was based on an earlier case, Hyman v. Essex Cty. Carpet Cleaning Co., 157 N.J. Super. 510, 513-16 (App. Div. 1978). When the employee filed an Application for Review or Modification of his award after expiration of the two-year period in N.J.S.A. 34:15-27, the judge issued an amended judgment declaring the employee permanently disabled. Id. at 514-15. The Appellate Court rejected the employer's argument, finding there was no doubt at all that the compensation court had the authority to open its judgments to correct a mistake. Id. at 516. The Appellate Court then held that when the compensation court considers requests to reopen a judgment to correct a mistake, "attention to the equities involved is imperative." Ibid.
Following these precedents, the Appellate Court found that the judge of compensation erred when she concluded that she lacked the authority to consider whether the petitioner's counsel's purported mistake with respect to the administrative consolidation of the two claims warrants either reopening the September 8, 2008 judgment on the 2003 claim or amending the November 25, 2013 reopener to include both the 2000 and 2003 claims. The Appellate Court remanded for the judge of compensation to undertake that review with consideration of both the facts and equities in light of the remedial purpose of the WCA.
Comment: Ordinarily, the two-year statute for filing an Application to Review is firmly enforced. The circumstances of this case were unique and whether there was still the right to open the 2003 claim was complicated by multiple overlapping claims and treatment. This exception to the two-year rule should be seen as clearly the exception to the rule.