Appellate Division addresses an insanity-based challenge to the statute of limitations provision of the Workers' Compensation Act.
The petitioner was employed as a mechanic by the respondent. On June 18, 2004, the petitioner injured his back at work while lifting a manhole cover. He received a period of authorized medical treatment and was assessed at maximum medical improvement on September 14, 2004. He subsequently underwent an IME to assess his permanent disability. On February 22, 2005, the respondent sent a letter to the petitioner notifying him of its intent to make a voluntary offer and tender of workers' compensation permanency benefits based on its IME findings. The respondent issued payments to the petitioner with the last payment of benefits dated April 20, 2005.
In 2007, the petitioner consulted an attorney for his injuries. On March 5, 2008, the petitioner filed a claim with the Division of Workers' Compensation for injuries arising out of his June 18, 2004, work-related accident. The respondent raised a statute-of-limitations defense in its answer and then moved for dismissal based on this defense. The respondent relied on N.J.S.A. 34:15-51, which provides that an initial claim for workers' compensation benefits must be filed "within two years after the date on which the accident occurred, or in case a part of the compensation has been paid by the employer, within two years after the last payment of compensation."
In opposition to the respondent's motion, the petitioner argued that the statute of limitations should be tolled under the "insanity clause" of N.J.S.A. 34:15-27. The petitioner submitted an affidavit in which he certified that he had severe dyslexia since childhood and appended school records to his affidavit indicating that he had been classified as having a neurologic and perceptual impairment. The petitioner claimed that his dyslexia prevented him from pursuing any remedies he may have been able to exercise had he been able to read or comprehend the respondent's letter notifying him of the voluntary offer and tender, or had someone been able to explain to him its significance or the effect that a delay in action would have on his recovery of benefits. Without oral argument, the Judge of Compensation entered an order on October 13, 2010, granting the respondent's motion and dismissing the petitioner's claim. The petitioner appealed.
In affirming the Judge of Compensation's ruling, the Appellate Division relied on the plain language of N.J.S.A. 34:15-27. That section, which addresses not the initial filing of a workers' compensation claim, but the reopening of a previously filed claim, provides that: "[A]n order approving settlement may be reviewed within 2 years from the date when the injured person last received a payment[.] If any party entitled to review under this section shall become insane within the aforesaid 2-year period, his insanity shall constitute grounds for tolling the unexpired balance of the 2-year period, which shall only begin to run again after his coming to or being of sane mind." The Appellate Division found that the plain language of N.J.S.A. 34:15-27 did not provide the petitioner with a safe harbor from the consequences of his failure to file a timely claim. The Appellate Division pointed to the fact that the petitioner's claim was an initial petition, not a petition to reopen a previously filed claim and, as such, the provisions of the statute did not apply.
The Appellate Division refrained from considering whether the petitioner's learning disability fell within the scope of the term "insane" found in N.J.S.A. 34:15-27. However, in quoting the Judge of Compensation, the Appellate Division did allude to its possible position: "[Dyslexia] has no bearing on one's intelligence or ability to understand one's legal rights. It is a learning disability. Petitioner's situation is no different from that of a person who does not speak English and who does not read English. Such a person would still be bound by the statutory time frame for filing a claim petition. If we carve out an exception to the statute of limitations for someone with a learning disability of dyslexia, it would open the door for an onslaught of other exceptions being carved out."
Case Law Alert - 1st Qtr 2012