On Certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
The opinion of the Court was delivered by Coleman, J. Chief Justice Poritz and Justices Handler, Pollock, and Garibaldi join in Justice Coleman's opinion. Justice O'hern filed a separate Dissenting opinion, in which Justice Stein joins. O'hern, J., Dissenting.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Coleman
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).
Toby Easton Reinhart v. E.I. Dupont De Nemours (A-38-96)
Argued October 22, 1996 -- Decided December 16, 1996
COLEMAN, J., writing for a majority of the Court.
The narrow issue raised in this workers' compensation case is whether an improper use of a transcript of a prior workers' compensation proceeding was so prejudicial that a redetermination of the merits of the claims should be required.
Reinhart filed a workers' compensation petition alleging that a work-related accident occurred on December 8, 1989, and that a reinjury occurred on December 12, 1989. Reinhart alleged the injury was to her back and neck, and occurred while lifting.
Reinhart did not report the injury to her supervisor, and continued working both days. She claims that she sent a message to a foreman through the computer system, but the letter was never received. Reinhart alleges that the injury was not initially painful, but rather felt like a "clicking" in her neck and shoulder area. Reinhart returned to work full-time. She eventually had surgery on her upper back in November 1990, and did not return to work until February 1991.
In denying that Reinhart sustained a compensable accident in December 1989, Dupont relied heavily on the facts and circumstances surrounding Reinhart's 1986 workers' compensation hearing that involved a 1984 accident. Counsel for Dupont cross-examined Reinhart in an effort to show that the complaints she gave in the present case were almost identical to those she had given in the 1986 hearing. He offered into evidence the transcript of the 1986 hearing. The Judge concluded that the transcript was admissible to attack Reinhart's credibility.
The Judge found that Reinhart had not suffered a compensable injury and had not reported the accident, and the claims were dismissed. In rendering his decision, the Judge stated his Conclusion that Reinhart had demonstrated a tendency to be untruthful. He cited to examples from the 1986 transcript in support of this Conclusion.
The Appellate Division reversed. Although recognizing that the Rules of Evidence do not apply to workers' compensation proceedings, it asserted that a Judge relying on the rules must apply them consistently with their general application. The court concluded that the Judge erred in relying on the instances of Reinhart's untruthfulness contained in the 1986 transcript, noting that evidence of a person's character or trait is not admissible for the purpose of proving the person acted in conformity therewith. The Appellate Division reversed and remanded for a redetermination by a new Judge.
HELD: The trial Judge's use of the 1986 transcript to buttress his Conclusion that petitioner had the tendency to be untruthful was error. However, that error does not require reversal because there is sufficient credible evidence, independent of the improper evidence, that supports the findings made by the trial Judge.
1. Although the Rules of Evidence do not control the admission of evidence in workers' compensation proceedings, it is well-settled that a Judge of compensation's determination must be based on competent evidence. Thus, the real issue presented is not whether evidence was admitted in violation of the Rules of Evidence, but whether there is substantial credible evidence in the record to support the judgment when the proofs are considered as a whole. (pp. 7-9)
2. The 1986 transcript was introduced into evidence to attack Reinhart's credibility. N.J.R.E. 607 permits its use for that purpose. The Judge of compensation, however, exceeded the proper scope of the transcript's permissible use by also using it to buttress his Conclusion that Reinhart had a tendency to be untruthful. (pp. 9-11)
3. Where, as here, there is sufficient credible evidence, independent of improper evidence, that supports the findings of a trial court, the improper use of some evidence does not require a reversal. There is substantial credible evidence in the record that supports the finding that petitioner was not credible. Consequently, the error is harmless. (pp. 11-13)
The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED, and the judgment of the Division of Workers' Compensation dismissing the petition is reinstated.
Justice O'HERN, Dissenting, in which JUSTICE STEIN joins, is of the view that the ruling of the workers' compensation Judge was so indelibly tainted by the Judge's improper use of the 1986 transcript as to require a rehearing before a new Judge.
CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES HANDLER, POLLOCK, and GARIBALDI join in JUSTICE COLEMAN'S opinion. JUSTICE O'HERN filed a separate Dissenting opinion, in which JUSTICE STEIN joins.
The opinion of the Court was ...