Justia Labor & Employment Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
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New Jersey Transit Corporation (New Jersey Transit) sought to recover workers’ compensation benefits paid to an employee, David Mercogliano, who sustained injuries in a work-related motor vehicle accident. It sued the individuals allegedly at fault in the accident, defendants Sandra Sanchez and Chad Smith, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 34:15-40, a provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act that authorized employers and workers’ compensation carriers that have paid workers’ compensation benefits to injured employees to assert subrogation claims. The issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review was whether that subrogation action was barred by the Auto Insurance Cost Recovery Act (AICRA). The trial court granted defendants’ motion, ruling that New Jersey Transit could not assert a claim based on economic loss. It noted that N.J.S.A. 39:6A-2(k) defined economic loss for purposes of AICRA to mean “uncompensated loss of income or property, or other uncompensated expenses, including, but not limited to, medical expenses.” In the trial court’s view, because New Jersey Transit’s workers’ compensation carrier paid benefits for all of Mercogliano’s medical expenses and lost income, he had no “uncompensated loss of income or property,” and thus sustained no economic loss for purposes of AICRA. The trial court relied on Continental Insurance Co. v. McClelland, 288 N.J. Super. 185 (App. Div. 1996), and policy considerations in reaching its decision. The Appellate Division reversed that judgment, agreeing with New Jersey Transit that its subrogation action arose entirely from “economic loss comprised of medical expenses and wage loss, not noneconomic loss.” However, it rejected the trial court’s view that an employer’s or workers’ compensation carrier’s subrogation claim based on benefits paid for economic loss contravened AICRA’s legislative intent. Finding no error in the appellate court's judgment, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed. View "New Jersey Transit Corporation v. Sanchez" on Justia Law

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By calling a teacher’s instructional work in a specialized and separate school district educational program, provided outside of regular school instructional hours, an “extracurricular assignment,” the school district claimed the teacher had no tenure protection to that position and had no recourse when she was replaced by a non-tenured teacher and suffered a loss in compensation. The district wrapped the label “extracurricular” around the assignment even though the after-hours instructional program was provided by the school district in order to fulfill core curriculum requirements for certain students unable to fulfill those requirements through the school district’s day program. The teaching position in which petitioner served in the alternative education program was tenure eligible. Indeed, the Board of Education and the Commissioner both conceded that a person serving in that “BookBinders” position exclusively for the requisite period of time would have been entitled to tenure. But petitioner was denied tenure because she already held tenure in a teaching position in the district’s regular-education day-instruction program. After review, of the Commissioner of Education’s decision regarding the teacher’s tenure, the New Jersey Supreme Court concluded petitioner met the statutory criteria for tenure, and that she was entitled to a remedy for the violation of her right not to be removed or reduced in salary while protected by tenure for her work in the BookBinders program. View "Melnyk v. Board of Education of the Delsea Regional High School District" on Justia Law

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David and Christine Minsavage were married and had four children. David had served as a math teacher for more than twenty-four years when he was diagnosed with terminal stage IV pancreatic cancer in August 2014. In November 2014, following advice allegedly provided by a New Jersey Education Association representative, David selected the “early retirement” option on his retirement application. Early retirement eligibility required twenty-five years of teaching service. David passed away in April 2015, having accumulated just over twenty-four years and nine months of teaching service over the course of his career. Less than two weeks after David’s death, the Division of Pension and Benefits notified Christine that David’s retirement application would not be approved because he had not completed twenty-five years of teaching service. As a result, Christine was entitled only to reimbursement of David’s pension contributions and a group life insurance benefit. Because David did not live long enough to qualify for early retirement, his family would have been entitled to greater benefits had he selected and qualified for “ordinary disability,” rather than “early retirement,” on his retirement application. Christine sought to modify David’s retirement application to select ordinary disability. The Board of Trustees of the Pension Fund (the Board) denied Christine’s request on the ground that the Pension Fund’s “administrative regulations do not allow for retroactive disability retirement applications, and become effective only on or after the date of filing.” The Appellate Division affirmed. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, however, finding that neither membership nor prior approval of a retirement application was required for modification of a retirement selection where good cause, reasonable grounds, and reasonable diligence were shown. The Court remanded this matter for further proceedings to allow Christine the opportunity to argue in favor of modification under that standard. View "Minsavage v. Board of Trustees, Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Frank Chiofalo, a then-member of the New Jersey State Police (NJSP), filed a complaint under the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) against his employer and certain supervisors (collectively, defendants). As the Assistant Administrative Officer of Troop B of the NJSP, Chiofalo was required to log documents that came in and out of headquarters and to collect reports from the Troop B commander. Chiofalo alleges he was subjected to adverse employment actions as retaliation for his engagement in protected activity related to two incidents. The first pertained to a claimed refusal to destroy internal NJSP documents. In 2012, a sergeant and a trooper participated in an unsanctioned escort on the Garden State Parkway, for which they later became subjects of internal review. Chiofalo claimed that the second protected activity occurred during an interaction with the Troop B Commander, in which he accused the Commander of not reporting his vacation time. Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, alleging that Chiofalo failed to set forth a prima facie case under CEPA. The court denied the motion. The matter proceeded to trial, and a jury awarded Chiofalo compensatory and punitive damages. The Appellate Division reversed the trial court judgment, stating, with respect to the validity of a CEPA claim under N.J.S.A. 34:19-3(c), a plaintiff had to first find and enunciate the specific terms of a statute or regulation, or the clear expression of public policy, which would be violated if the facts as alleged are true. The appellate court concluded that Chiofalo failed to do so and that defendants were entitled to summary judgment on that basis. Specific to the timekeeping claim, the Appellate Division added that Chiofalo’s statement to the Commander “was hardly 'whistleblowing’ as contemplated by CEPA.” The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed in part, finding the trial court did not er in refusing to grant defendants' motion for summary judgment on one of plaintiff's two bases for whistleblowing charges. The Court affirmed with respect to the alleged timesheet violation. View "Chiofalo v. New Jersey" on Justia Law

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Officer Corey Corbo became gravely ill while at home with his girlfriend and colleague, Officer Jessica Garcia. Garcia called 9-1-1 and later admitted that Corbo had ingested cocaine five days earlier. The paramedics rushed Corbo to the hospital, where his laboratory results came back positive for cocaine. Relying on the hospital records, which included the positive lab results, and Garcia’s statement about the cocaine, Union City terminated Corbo’s employment with the UCPD. The Appellate Division reversed the decision removing Corbo from the UCPD, holding that the ALJ erred when she admitted the hospital records into evidence without first requiring the City to lay foundational testimony to satisfy the requirements of the business records hearsay exception. It also held that the City failed to establish the reliability of the lab results or to introduce other competent evidence at the hearing but did not remand for further evidentiary proceedings. The New Jersey Supreme Court modified the judgment of the Appellate Division and remanded matter to the Office of Administrative Law for further proceedings to allow the City the opportunity to demonstrate that the hospital records were admissible as business records, and for the opportunity to present any other theories of admissibility. View "In the Matter of Corey Corbo" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Frank Caraballo joined the Jersey City Police Department (JCPD) as a police officer in February 1973 and became a detective in 1977. While on duty in August 1999, Caraballo sustained injuries to his hands, back, knees, and legs during a motor vehicle accident. The injuries to his knees were severe and became chronic. As a result of those injuries, Caraballo fluctuated between full duty, light duty, and paid sick leave throughout the remainder of his tenure on the police force. In August 2001, Caraballo filed a workers’ compensation claim related to the 1999 accident. He also underwent anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction surgery on his left knee. Over the next several years, physicians evaluated Caraballo to determine whether he required bilateral knee replacement surgery. On March 4, 2013, more than six-and-a-half years after he requested that the JCPD authorize knee replacement surgery, Caraballo settled his workers’ compensation claim. Shortly thereafter, he filed a complaint against the JCPD asserting a cause of action under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD). Specifically, Caraballo alleged that the JCPD failed to authorize his knee replacement surgery and, therefore, failed to reasonably accommodate his disability. The trial court granted the JCPD’s motion for summary judgment, finding that even if the knee surgery could have qualified as a reasonable accommodation, the record contained several medical evaluations showing that Caraballo was unable to carry out the responsibilities of a police officer with or without the surgery. The trial court also found that Caraballo could not bring a viable LAD claim because he failed to enforce his right to have knee surgery in the workers’ compensation court. The Appellate Division reversed. According to the panel, the record contained numerous material factual disputes -- including why Caraballo retired without receiving knee surgery -- that should have been presented to a jury. The Appellate Division also concluded that Caraballo established a prima facie failure-to-accommodate case under the LAD. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, finding Caraballo’s failure to utilize the Act’s administrative remedies to obtain knee replacement surgery precludes his failure-to-accommodate claim under the LAD. In addition, Caraballo’s total knee replacement surgery cannot qualify as a reasonable accommodation under the LAD. View "Caraballo v. City of Jersey City Police Department" on Justia Law

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Seventeen-year veteran volunteer firefighter Jennifer Kocanowski was injured in the line of duty. She applied and was denied temporary disability benefits because she did not have outside employment. In this appeal, the issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's consideration was whether volunteer firefighters had to be employed to be eligible for temporary disability benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act, N.J.S.A. 34:15-1 to -146. The Appellate Division affirmed the compensation judge’s determination that pre-injury outside employment was a necessary predicate to awarding temporary disability benefits to volunteer firefighters, holding that there "first must be an entitlement by the volunteer to payment of temporary benefits. That payment depends on proof of lost wages." The Supreme Court reversed: "While N.J.S.A. 34:15-75’s language is unclear, its legislative history indicates a strong intent to provide temporary disability coverage to volunteer firefighters at the maximum compensation provided for in the Act." View "Kocanowski v. Township of Bridgewater" on Justia Law

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William Hendrickson, Jr. worked as a fire safety inspector with the Department of Community Affairs. While on duty, he uttered an obscene and belittling remark about a female supervisor overheard by two of his colleagues. The DCA brought three disciplinary charges against Hendrickson. In September 2014, after a departmental hearing on the disciplinary charges, the DCA issued an order terminating Hendrickson’s employment. The ALJ held that Hendrickson uttered a gender slur in a workplace environment and therefore violated the State’s policy prohibiting gender discrimination and engaged in conduct unbecoming a public employee. Although the ALJ was troubled by Hendrickson’s failure to acknowledge his wrongdoing, she reasoned that removal was “too harsh” a punishment given Hendrickson’s lack of a disciplinary record in the fifteen months before and nine months after the incident. She instead ordered Hendrickson suspended for six months. The ALJ forwarded the decision to the Civil Service Commission, and both parties filed exceptions. Hendrickson argued that the discipline was too severe, and the DCA argued that termination was the appropriate punishment. Failing to reach a quorum, the ALJ's decision was deemed adopted by the Civil Service Commission. The Appellate Division reversed the ALJ’s decision and reinstated the DCA’s termination of Hendrickson’s employment, acknowledging the ALJ’s decision “was 'deemed-adopted’ as the Commission’s final decision. Nevertheless, the panel held that because the vacancies on the Commission disabled it from forming a quorum and acting, “the deemed-adopted statute does not require traditional deferential appellate review of the ALJ’s decision.” The New Jersey Supreme Court determined the Appellate Division erred in suggesting appellate review of a disciplinary sanction imposed by a judge was de novo and different from traditional appellate review of an agency determination. Consequently, and based on a deferential standard of review, the Supreme Court could not conclude the ALJ's decision was shocking to a sense of fairness, and affirmed the ALJ's decision. View "In the Matter of William R. Hendrickson, Jr., Department of Community Affairs" on Justia Law

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At issue before the New Jersey Supreme Court was two determinations of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System (PFRS) Board of Trustees (Board), each involving a police officer’s claim that he was “mentally . . . incapacitated” by a traumatic event within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(1). In Mount v. Board of Trustees, PFRS, the Board and the Appellate Division panel rejected Officer Christopher Mount’s claim that he was permanently disabled because he witnessed at close range the incineration of three young victims in an explosion after a high-speed motor vehicle collision. The Supreme Court held Mount had proven that he experienced a terrifying or horror-inducing event that met the standard of Patterson v. Board of Trustees, SPRS, 194 N.J. 29 (2008), and that the event was undesigned and unexpected within the meaning of Richardson v. Board of Trustees, PFRS, 192 N.J. 189 (2007). The Court therefore reversed the Appellate Division panel’s judgment and remanded to the panel to decide Mount’s claim that his mental disability was a direct result of that incident. In Martinez v. Board of Trustees, PFRS, the Supreme Court considered the Division’s decision reversing the Board’s denial of accidental disability benefits to Detective Gerardo Martinez, a municipal police department’s hostage negotiator. Martinez claimed that his permanent disability resulted from psychological injuries sustained when a lengthy hostage negotiation ended with the shooting death of the hostage-taker, as he and Martinez spoke by cellphone. The Supreme Court held Martinez did not demonstrate the incident that caused his disability was undesigned and unexpected under the Richardson test, and therefore he was not entitled to accidental disability benefits pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7. View "Mount v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Jaclyn Thompson alleged that she was mentally disabled as a result of three incidents at work. Petitioner was a health and physical education teacher. She taught regular gym classes, coached, and served as an advisor and mentor. She also taught gym classes specifically geared toward students with disabilities. During three of petitioner’s classes, students punched, slapped, or pushed her. Petitioner sustained no physical injuries in the three incidents, and she required no medical treatment. Petitioner filed a request for accidental disability retirement benefits based on the three incidents. Her psychiatrist diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Board of Trustees of the Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund (Board) denied her request for accidental disability benefits but found petitioner qualified for a deferred retirement. Petitioner argued she met the requirement for mental disability because the incidents involved physical contact. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found petitioner did not meet the standard for accidental disability benefits. However, the ALJ granted her ordinary disability benefits. The ALJ found that she suffered from PTSD, that medication was ineffective at abating her symptoms, and that she was totally and permanently disabled from the performance of her regularly assigned duties. Petitioner appealed the denial of accidental disability benefits. The Board affirmed the ALJ. Petitioner then appealed to the Appellate Division. The majority of the panel affirmed. Finding no abuse of discretion, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division. View "Thompson v. Board of Trustees, Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund" on Justia Law