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Friday, November 28, 2014

Rules of Dismissal Governed by Equitable Principles

In reversing a dismissal in Workers’ Compensation a NJ Court applied equitable principles as well as the guidance of the rules of the civil justice system. The inability of counsel to appear for what the Appellate Court deemed to be justifiable cause (conflicted with his obligation to serve as a court-appointed arbitrator in another court), resulted in a reversal of the dismissal.

“No petition shall be dismissed for want of prosecution or for failure to form-
ally adjourn the cause, until after notice shall be served by the respondent on
the petitioner or his attorney that unless the cause is moved for hearing within
one month from the date of the service thereof, the claim will be considered
abandoned and the petition dismissed subject, however, to the right to have the
petition reinstated for good cause shown, upon application made to the deputy
commissioner before whom the matter was heard or to the Commissioner of Labor
within one year thereafter. No claim heretofore made shall be considered abandoned because the petition was dismissed under this section, if such petition
has been reinstated for good cause shown, and such petition shall be deemed to
have been dismissed without prejudice to further proceedings upon said petition,
and further proceedings thereon shall be as effective as though said petition
had not been dismissed.” N.J.S.A. 34:15–51

The Court stated…… “Irrespective of the absence of express statutory authority and a one-year limitation imposed upon such a reopening in certain circumstances, N.J.S.A. 34:15–54, it is abundantly clear that the Division has the inherent power, “comparable to that possessed by the courts (R.R. 4:62–2 [now R. 4:50] ), to re-open judgments for fraud, mistake, inadvertence, or other equitable ground.” Beese v. First National Stores, 52 N.J. 196, 200 (1968). See also Estelle v.  Red Bank Bd. of Ed., 14 N.J. 256 (1954); Stone v. Dugan Brothers of N.J., 1 N.J.Super. 13 (App.Div.1948).”

“In the present case, we initially note that petitioner’s counsel was unable to appear to oppose the motion to dismiss because the hearing date conflicted with his obligation to serve as a court-appointed arbitrator in another court. We are unable to determine on this record why, under these circumstances, counsel’s seemingly valid adjournment request was denied. Counsel was then served with an order that referenced not only N.J.S.A. 34:15–54, but also a requirement that the case could not be restored unless it was ready to be tried or settled. Although petitioner’s surgery finally occurred in September 2011, within the one-year statutory period, the case was not ready until the doctor’s report was received on May 2, 2012. Petitioner then promptly moved to restore the case two weeks later.

“Arguably these circumstances may suffice to warrant equitable relief under Rule 4:50–1(f), especially should respondent be unable to demonstrate prejudice due to the delay beyond the one-year statutory period.

“In deciding the motion, the judge of compensation was clearly of the mistaken belief that he was unable to grant relief “[a]bsent specific authority in the statute.” To the contrary, the matter may be reopened if it qualifies under Rule 4:50–1(f), and even then, if the motion is found to have been brought within a reasonable time. See Hyman, supra, 157 N.J.Super. at 517. We conclude that this determination “is best made in the first instance by the judge of compensation, on a record fully developed for that purpose and accompanied by adequate findings.” Ibid. Accordingly we remand for a further hearing consistent with this opinion.

Not Reported in A.3d, 2014 WL 6634885 (N.J.Super.A.D.)

Jon L. Gelman of Wayne NJ is the author of NJ Workers’ Compensation Law (West-Thompson-Reuters) and co-author of the national treatise, Modern Workers’ Compensation Law (West-Thompson-Reuters). For over 4 decades the Law Offices of Jon L Gelman  1.973.696.7900  have been representing injured workers and their families who have suffered occupational accidents and illnesses.