Slightly Different Facts Produce Opposite Results in Two Somewhat Similar Cases

Bowser v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemens Retirement System, 455 N.J. Super. 165 (App. Div. 2018); Mattia v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemens Retirement System, 455 N.J. Super. 217 (App. Div. 2018).  These two opinions, issued today by the same panel (though written by two different judges on that panel) illustrate that factual distinctions matter.  On the surface, the cases were similar: in each one, a corrections officer slipped and fell on ice in or on the way to the parking lot of his or her employer.  Each applied for accidental disability retirement benefits.  One plaintiff succeeded while the other did not.

Kristy Bowser “fell while retrieving feminine hygiene products from her car.  She needed them while, unexpectedly, serving a second consecutive shift.”  As Judge Ostrer’s opinion recited, she did not “clock out” when she went to her car, and she was paid for break time, as with a bathroom break.  On the way to her car, she fell on ice.  It was stipulated that she was totally and permanently disabled as a result of the fall, and that she had not been negligent.  The issue was whether the fall was “undesigned and unexpected,” and whether the fall had occurred “during and as a result of the performance of [her] regular or assigned duties.”  Both of those things are required in order for benefits to be paid.

An Administrative Law Judge found that the fall was unexpected, and that it had occurred in the course of Bowser’s performance of her duties.  In its final decision on review of the ALJ’s ruling, however, the Board ruled that the injury had not occurred while Bowser was performing her duties.  Accordingly, the Board rejected her claim for benefits.  She appealed, and the Appellate Division today reversed the Board’s ruling.

The key case, for both parties and the Appellate Division, was Kasper v. Board of Trustees, Teachers’ Pension & Annuity Fund, 164 N.J. 564 (2000).  The Board quoted language from that case stating that an employee “must be engaged in his or her employment duties on property owned or controlled by the employer in order to qualify for accidental disability pension.”  Citing two unpublished cases that denied benefits to employees who suffered disabling injuries in parking lots while going to or leaving work, the Board ruled that the parking lot was “not considered the employer’s premises under Kasper.”

Judge Ostrer disagreed.  He recognized that a quasi-judicial decision of an agency is to be upheld unless it is arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable.  But he also observed that an appellate court owes no deference to an agency as to a purely legal issue of statutory interpretation such as that presented here.  Nor was any deference owed to the Board’s interpretation of Kasper, a binding Supreme Court decision.  The de novo standard of review thus applied.

Quoting from Kasper, Judge Ostrer stated that accidents occurring “during or as a result of the actual performance of [an employee’s] duties, or in an activity preparatory but essential to the actual duty” on the employer’s premises,” including “all activities engaged in by the employee in connection with his or her work, on the employer’s premises, from the formal beginning to the formal end of the workday.”  Kasper went on to say that “[i]ncluded are on-premises lunch and restroom breaks that are necessary concomitants of an employee’s performance of his or her regularly assigned tasks, so long as they occur within the confines of the workday at the work location.”

Though that last statement was dicta, Judge Ostrer found it “controlling,” citing cases stating that “carefully considered dictum” of the Supreme Court binds lower courts.  Moreover, Kasper distinguished cases involving “commuting accidents,” including those that occur in a parking lot.  But Kasper made clear, Judge Ostrer ruled, that parking lots are not invariably outside the employer’s premises.  He cited examples of employees whose job duties must be performed in parking lots.

Here, the facts were similar to those surrounding restroom breaks.  Bowser left the premises to get feminine hygiene products that were necessary because she had unexpectedly been assigned another work shift.  “She remained on the [employer’s] premises, and had no intention of leaving.  She obtained relief from a fellow officer so she could briefly leave her post, as she would if she had headed straight to the restroom.  And she was ‘on the clock,’ as she would be during a restroom break.”  Accordingly, she was entitled to benefits.

The other case involved Paul Mattia.  He fell on ice and was injured in a parking lot before he was able to check in and receive his work assignment for that day.  An Administrative Law Judge granted Mattia’s claim for accidental disability retirement benefits, but the Board reversed that ruling on appeal.  The Appellate Division, in an opinion by Judge Rose, affirmed the Board.

On appeal, Mattia argued that “his commute was completed when he arrived in the parking lot and was ‘doing something preparatory to [his] job function like making way to the entrance of [his] job heading to [his] post.”  Judge Rose did not agree.  Relying on Kasper, she concluded that Mattia “had not yet completed his commute when he was injured, and was not performing any function connected to his assignment when he was injured.”  None of his duties included “before-hours vigilance in the parking lot.”  His injury was thus “not causally connected to his work,” and the Board’s decision denying benefits was affirmed.