Practical Advice for Bifurcated Trials in New Jersey

A recent decision serves as a reminder that when cases are bifurcated for trial, the ruling may only be limited to the issue before the Court. In Moran v. Cosmetic Essence, the Judge of Compensation issued a ruling on temporary disability following a bifurcated trial regarding the compensability of an alleged work-related injury. On March 14, 2018, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey remanded the matter finding that the workers’ compensation judge should not have ruled to award temporary disability benefits following a bifurcated trial on compensability.

The facts in Moran.

The petitioner, Nestor Moran, filed a Claim Petition alleging that he was injured on January 28, 2016 while lifting a heavy box. Respondent filed an Answer denying compensability and alleging that no accident occurred while working. Petitioner then filed a Motion for Temporary and Medical Benefits. However, due to the fact that the Respondent denied a work-related accident occurred, it was agreed that they would bifurcate the trial limited to whether a work-related injury occurred and if such an injury did not occur, whether the petitioner committed fraud by pursuing the matter.

The trial.

Following the bifurcated trial, the Judge ruled that the petitioner was credible and that an injury did occur. The petitioner had testified that he did not originally report the incident because his back did not both him until after he left work for the day. He did not report the accident until 4 days later when he texted his team leader as well as left a voice mail for the warehouse operations manager. The Respondent argued that petitioner’s notice of an accident was not for several days and that one of the doctor’s reports mentioned a back injury while shoveling snow.

Ultimately, the Judge gave greater weight to petitioner’s testimony and ruled that the petitioner had sustained his burden of proving an accident occurred and notice was still timely given to the Respondent.

Next, the Judge found that the petitioner was entitled to temporary disability benefits and made findings of the nature of the injury. Additionally, the Judge sought out and relied on an outside source by contacting the state to see if the petitioner received State disability and determined that there was an existing lien for those benefits.

The Appeal.

The respondent appealed the judge’s findings arguing:

  1. The trial court ignored substantial issues of credibility and improperly found that a compensable accident happened, while dismissing cross motions;
  2. The judge of compensation’s decision that the petitioner did not violate NJSA 34:15-57.4(2) should be overturned because the proofs submitted and testimony presented show the petitioner committed fraud;
  3. The petitioner has not proven a wage loss that would entitle him to temporary disability benefits and
  4. The lower court abandoned all notions of fundamental fairness and constitutional guarantees of procedural due process by relying on evidence it secured on its own and not bifurcating the trial as agreed by the parties.

First, the Appellate Division found that the judge’s finding of credibility of the petitioner was appropriate. Under the State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 162 (1964), the Appellate Court must consider whether the judge’s findings “could reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence present in the record…with due regard to the judge’s opportunity to hear the witnesses and judge their credibility.” Consequently, “deference must be accorded to the compensation judge’s factual findings and legal determinations…unless they are manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with competent relevant and reasonable credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice.” Linquist v. City of Jersey City Fire Dep’t, 175 N.J. 244, 262 (2003) (quoting Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Inv’rs Ins. Co., 65 N.J.474, 484 (1974). The Appellate Division found that there was no valid reason for rejecting the judge’s determinations and findings of credibility.

Second, since the judge gave greater weight to petitioner’s testimony and found the accident to have occurred, then there was no issue of fraud. The judge correctly determined that although the doctor’s report included a possible injury while shoveling snow, the petitioner testified that he did not state that to the doctor and did not hurt his back while shoveling snow. Additionally, the doctor did not testify at the trial to respond.

Third, the Appellate Division found that the parties agreed to bifurcate the trial for the court to determine whether a compensable injury occurred before the parties and court invested time and energy on other issues. By awarding temporary disability benefits, the judge deprived the respondent the opportunity to present evidence. The Appellate Division held that the judge mistakenly exceeded the limits of the bifurcation agreement and vacated that portion of the order for remand.

Fourth, the Appellate Division found that the judge should not conduct their own factual investigation, especially without notice and an opportunity for the parties to be heard. Lazovitz v. Bd. Of Adjustment, Berkeley Heights, 213 N.J. Super. 376, 281-82 (App. Div. 1986); Amadeo v. Amadeo, 64 N.J. Super. 417, 424 (App. Div. 1960). The judge acknowledged in her written decision that she “on her own volition, contacted the State and was advised” that the petitioner had been paid temporary disability benefits and that there existed a lien for those temporary disability benefits. The Appellate Division vacated that portion of the order and remanded.

Applying this decision to your cases.

  • When making an agreement to bifurcate an issue for trial, ensure that all parties, along with the judge, are in agreement as to the specific issues being addressed. The agreement should be memorialized as well as conferenced following the trial.
  • Following any bifurcated trial, the parties should request the opportunity to submit a written trial brief prior to the judge issuing a written opinion.

Karen Vincent is an associate attorney at Lois LLC where she defends employers and carriers in New Jersey workers’ compensation claims. She can be reached directly at kvincent@lois-llc.com or 201-880-7213.