In a recent decision from the New Jersey Appellate Division, the court determined that the Law Division does not have the authority to transfer the matter to the Workers’ Compensation Division. In addition, the filing of a claim in the Law Division does not toll the statute of limitation in a Workers’ Compensation claim.
The plaintiff in this case, Anthony Garofalo, was a self-employed podiatric surgeon and volunteer firefighter at the East Whitehouse Fire Department. On March 11, 2009, the plaintiff fell on the firehouse stairs and sustained injuries to his right bicep and elbow. He alleged that the cause of the fall was an improperly secured carpet runner. Following the accident, the plaintiff filed an initial report to the workers’ compensation carrier indicating that the accident occurred while he was at the firehouse for a weekly drill night. As a result, all of his medical expenses were paid by the compensation carrier. Thereafter, on April 30, 2009, the plaintiff received a letter from the compensation carrier indicating that his file was going to be closed due to lack of responsiveness on the plaintiff’s part regarding treatment and work status.
Nearly two years later, on March 8, 2011, the plaintiff filed a complaint in the Law Division against the firehouse, alleging negligence on the basis that the department failed to properly secure the runner on the stairs, thus causing his accident and resulting injuries. The defendant moved for summary judgment. While the motion was pending, the plaintiff’s then-counsel asked if the defendant would agree to remand the matter to the Workers’ Compensation Court, but the defendant declined. In the plaintiff’s opposition to the motion, he requested that the Law Division transfer the matter to the Division of Workers’ Compensation. Summary judgment was granted in favor of the defendant on March 30, 2012, at which time, the court stated the that Workers’ Compensation Division was not part of the Superior Court, thus, it was not amenable to transfers.
Rather than taking an appeal, on April 17, 2012, the plaintiff filed a claim petition against the defendant in the Workers’ Compensation Division. The defendant filed an Answer requesting immediate dismissal of the claim pursuant to N.J.S.A. 34:15-51, as it was filed more than two years after the last date of compensation, March 26, 2009. The plaintiff argued that the Law Division judge should have transferred the matter at the time of his request, citing Townsend v. Great Adventure, 178 N.J. Super. 508 (App. Div. 1981). The judge of Compensation disagreed.
In a brief opinion, the court noted that since the plaintiff failed to appeal the granting of summary judgment by the Law Division, and since he failed to file a timely compensation claim, he could not call upon Townsend to save the claim. The plaintiff made additional attempts to salvage his claim by moving before the Law Division to “simply remand” the matter to the Workers’ Compensation Division, pursuant to Rule 1:13-1 or Rule 4:50-1, but the Law Division disagreed. The court held that not only had the plaintiff failed to assert a single basis as to why he was entitled relief, but also that it was not in the interest of justice to effectuate a transfer. Further, the court held that it was the plaintiff who failed to exercise due diligence and present relevant case law at the time the summary judgment motion was filed, and it was not the court’s job to research the relevant case law at the time in support of the plaintiff’s argument, nor was it the court’s job to try and fix the plaintiff’s error after the fact.
On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed all findings. Most importantly, the court held that the Law Division did not have the authority to transfer the matter to the Workers’ Compensation Division. Rule 1:13-4(a) grants transfer power to the court when the court determines that it is without jurisdiction to handle the matter. Only after making this finding can the court transfer the matter to the appropriate forum. The plaintiff failed to present any evidence to the Law Division judge to support such a contention; thus, there was no basis for a transfer.
Even more importantly from a Workers’ Compensation perspective, the court held that the Workers’ Compensation claim was properly dismissed, as it was time-barred. N.J.S.A. 34:15-51 requires that a claim petition be filed within two years of the last date of compensation. Although the plaintiff argued that the court should retroactively apply the date of the filing in the Law Division, the court disagreed.
What It Means to You
Remember that time limitations in one court cannot be substituted for another. If there is any possibility that multiple types of claims can be filed, keep an eye out for the limitations. From a defense perspective in the Workers’ Compensation world, Garofalo provides a solid basis for a Motion to Dismiss based on a time-bar.