On appeal from the Final Decision of the Merit System Board.
R.s. Cohen, Muir, Jr. and Kestin. The opinion of the court was delivered by Kestin, J.A.D.
In October, 1989, petitioner, Naoma Dykas, was diagnosed as suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists, more severe on the left than on the right. On November 14, 1989, she underwent surgery to correct the condition in her left wrist and received sick leave injury (SLI) benefits pursuant to N.J.S.A. 11A:6-8 and N.J.A.C. 4A:6-1.6 for her two-month recovery period. Petitioner underwent a second surgical procedure on August 31, 1990 to correct the condition in her right wrist. The recovery period for this operation was 1 1/2 months. Sick leave injury benefits for this latter period of disability were denied by her employing agency, the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
Petitioner appealed and the Merit System Board (Board) upheld the denial on two grounds. One was that an "accident date" of "approx. 06-01-89" was specified in the "Employer's First Report of Accidental Injury or Occupational Disease" submitted by petitioner on October 30, 1989; and that the time period between the specified date of injury, June 1, 1989, and the date of the second surgery, August 31, 1990, exceeded a one-year limitation established in N.J.A.C. 4A:6-1.6(b)3, which provides:
Benefits are limited to a one year period from the initial date of the injury or illness.
The report had described the injury as "Carpol (sic) Tunnel Syndrome -- Both Wrists (Surgery on left)". In a submission to the Board, the DMV asserted its wish to waive the one-year limitation, but indicated that it was uncertain whether the type of injury suffered by petitioner qualified for the benefit sought. That caveat was articulated notwithstanding the DMV's grant
of SLI benefits to the petitioner in relation to the first surgery without having raised any such question.
In its other ground for denying petitioner's application, the Board held that she had "alleged that her condition was caused by the repetitive sorting of cards rather than a single incident. This type of injury does not meet SLI criteria. . . ." The Board at the time, therefore, appears to have rejected occupational diseases for SLI coverage, recognizing only traumatic injuries as being covered.*fn* On petitioner's request for reconsideration, the DMV once again stated its position that the application should not be denied on the basis of the one-year limitation, but that it accepted the ruling that the type of injury did not qualify for benefits. The petition for reconsideration was denied and this appeal ensued.
Petitioner argues that the one-year limitation contained in N.J.A.C. 4A:6-1.6(b)3 does not relate to the time within which an employee may file a claim, but rather establishes a one-year maximum for the receipt of benefits. The meaning of that provision is obscure and ambiguous. While the words admit of the interpretation advanced by the petitioner they also support the interpretation made by the Board. One way of resolving such a dilemma would be to give substantial weight to the agency's interpretation of its rules and regulations. Simon v. Board of Trustees, 233 N.J. Super. 186, 195, 558 A.2d 490 (App.Div.1989). Yet, a rule which does not contain a clear or objectively ascertainable standard may not be upheld. New Jersey Ass'n of Health Care Facilities v. Finley, 83 N.J. 67, 82, 415 A.2d 1147 (1980). In this instance, however,
we have determined that even under the Board's interpretation of the rule, the petitioner must prevail on the timing question. This Conclusion is based upon our understanding of the purpose served by the SLI benefit. The Legislature's design in creating a sick leave injury benefit is best fostered by interpreting N.J.A.C. 4A:6-1.6(b)3 in the manner advanced by petitioner.
In order to determine when a time period expires, one must first know when it began. The premise of the Board's denial of benefits is that petitioner's eligibility period commenced on June 1, 1989, the date which she indicated on her report form as marking the onset of her carpal tunnel syndrome. Yet, as of June 1, 1989, petitioner had not become disabled. The purpose of the SLI benefit seems clear. It is to provide a continuation of salary to any covered State employee "who is disabled due to a work-related injury or illness [by granting] a leave of absence with pay". N.J.A.C. 4A:6-1.6(b). It is clear that SLI benefits are designed only for the purpose of providing income stabilization and continuation for a designated period of time to employees with work-related injuries or illnesses; the benefits are not intended to compensate employees for their injuries or illnesses. Payments are to be reduced not only by any other temporary disability benefits received, N.J.A.C. 4A:6-1.6(b)2, but also by any compensation earned on a part-time return to work pending full recovery, N.J.A.C. 4A:6-1.6(b)1. When viewed in this light it is ...