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Springer v. Bridgewater Township Police Dep't

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


March 6, 2008

NICOLE SPRINGER, PETITIONER-RESPONDENT,
v.
BRIDGEWATER TOWNSHIP POLICE DEPARTMENT, RESPONDENT-APPELLANT.

On appeal from the New Jersey Department of Labor, Division of Workers' Compensation, Claim Petition No. 2005-19721.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted October 24, 2007

Before Judges Wefing and R. B. Coleman.

Respondent Bridgewater Township Police Department (BTPD) appeals a September 12, 2006 order of modification directing BTPD to coordinate the payment of temporary disability benefits to petitioner Nicole Springer (Springer). Because we find the record is not adequate for a proper review, we reverse and remand for further development of the record.

On June 9, 2004, Springer, an officer with the Bridgewater Police Department, received a call instructing her and Police Officer Jason Daunton to investigate a possible fuel spill at the corner of Route 28 and Vanderveer Road in Bridgewater. When the officers arrived at the scene, they discovered an oily substance on the roadway spanning seventy-five feet. A Public Works employee determined that the substance on the roadway was a petroleum-based cleaner, Klean Strip Naphtha, exposure to which may cause dizziness, lightheadedness and nausea. The officers closed off the roadway and manually directed traffic.

After approximately fifteen minutes, both officers began to feel ill. Within an hour, Officer Daunton was transported to the hospital for medical treatment. Springer declined medical treatment at that time, hoping her condition would improve; however, later that day, she was taken to the hospital as her condition worsened. The hospital released Springer in the afternoon and she returned to the BTPD to perform light duty. Upon discharge, the hospital told her to contact QualCare, BTPD's Workers' Compensation medical case manager.

Throughout the remainder of 2004 and during 2005, Springer sought treatment and evaluations from numerous doctors in connection with symptoms that she believed were caused by her inhalation of the Naphtha. On June 29, 2005, Springer filed a claim petition against BTPD with the New Jersey Department of Labor, Division of Workers' Compensation. Thereafter, she filed a motion for temporary and medical disability benefits. In a consent order dated March 28, 2006, the parties agreed that Springer would be examined by BTPD's medical expert and that BTPD would pay Springer a voluntary tender of five percent partial total disability within fourteen days of the entry of the order.

After she received the medical expert's report, Springer filed a motion for enforcement of the March 28, 2006 consent order. On April 19, 2006, after hearing oral argument, the judge of compensation ordered that Springer: (1) was entitled to temporary disability benefits in the amount of $650 per week; (2) receive the benefits until medically discharged; and (3) continue treatment with specific providers. The judge also ordered that BTPD pay Springer the five percent voluntary tender within fourteen days. BTPD moved to modify that order. The motion was heard on August 15, 2006, after which the judge of compensation ordered BTPD to coordinate the payment of the five percent voluntary tender with the cessation of the payment of temporary disability benefits. BTPD then filed this appeal, raising the following points for our consideration:

POINT I: WHETHER THE JUDGE OF COMPENSATION IMPROPERLY AWARDED BENEFITS, IN THE ABSENCE OF ANY SWORN TESTIMONY OR OTHER SUFFICIENT EVIDENTIAL BASIS, CONSIDERING THE PROOFS AS A WHOLE.

POINT II: WHETHER THE JUDGE OF COMPENSATION WAS CLEARLY WRONG IN FINDING CAUSAL CONNECTION, BETWEEN THE PETITIONER'S EMPLOYMENT AND HER NEUROPSYCHIATRIC CONDITION.

POINT III: WHETHER THE DECISION BELOW WAS MADE WITHOUT THE SUPPORT OF A REASONED EXPLANATION BASED ON SPECIFIC FINDINGS OF FACT.

As a threshold matter, we note that currently there is a split in authority as to whether an award of temporary benefits qualifies as a final judgment. In Anderson v. Well-Built Homes of Cent. Jersey, Inc., 69 N.J. Super. 246, 254 (App. Div. 1961), we stated that "[t]he award of temporary disability benefits during the pendency of [a] workmen's compensation proceeding was not appealable as of right prior to a final judgment disposing of all issues." However, more recent decisions suggest finality. For example, in Hodgdon v. Project Packaging, Inc., 214 N.J. Super. 352, 358-60 (App. Div. 1986), certif. denied, 107 N.J. 109 (1987), we opined that there is no need to certify an order of temporary disability benefits as final in order for it to be appealed. Also, in Della Rosa v. Van-Rad Contracting Co., Inc., we followed Hodgdon, supra, and expressed that:

An award for temporary medical and disability benefits shares many of the characteristics of a final judgment. It may be docketed in Superior Court and executed upon. It is presently payable in the absence of a stay. A petitioner who receives such an award of temporary benefits receives the equivalent of a final money judgment, and a respondent should be entitled to pursue an appeal therefrom as a matter of right.

[267 N.J. Super. 290, 294 (App. Div. 1993).]

In accordance with the current trend, we recognize BTPD's appeal as an appeal from a final judgment.

We bypass the argument about whether the judge needed to hear testimony or allow cross-examination in an enforcement hearing. These issues are left to the sound discretion of the presiding judge. We proceed to address BTPD's last argument first.

In its third point of argument, BTPD asserts that the compensation judge's decision did not adequately articulate the court's findings and should not be sustained. We agree.

It is axiomatic in this State . . . that an administrative agency acting quasi-judicially must set forth basic findings of fact, supported by the evidence and supporting the ultimate conclusions and final determination, for the salutary purpose of informing the interested parties and any reviewing tribunal of the basis on which the final decision was reached so that it may be readily determined whether the result is sufficiently and soundly grounded or derives from arbitrary, capricious or extra-legal considerations. [Perez v. Pantasote, Inc., 95 N.J. 105, 118 (1984) (quoting In re Application of Howard Sav. Inst., 32 N.J. 29, 52 (1960)).]

Similarly in Akef v. BASF Corp., 305 N.J. Super. 333, 340 (App. Div. 1997) we noted:

We ordinarily defer to determinations of judges of compensation when they are supported by "sufficient credible evidence in the record." Close v. Kordulak Bros., 44 N.J. 589, 599 (1965). But a judge of compensation has special expertise, and in order for us to defer to his determinations, we need to know what they are. Accordingly, we have held that "an ultimate conclusion of liability, without a reasoned explanation base [sic] on specific findings of basic facts, does not satisfy the requirements of the adjudicatory process because it does not enable us to properly perform our review function within the guidelines of Close."

"[A] mere cataloging of evidence followed by an ultimate conclusion of liability, without a reasoned explanation based on specific findings of basic facts, does not satisfy the requirements of the adjudicatory process because it does not enable us to properly perform our review function within the guidelines of Close, supra." Lister v. J.B. Eurell Co., 234 N.J. Super. 64, 73 (App. Div. 1989). The judge cannot simply rehash the evidence presented at the hearing. He or she must provide specific reasons to indicate why he or she accepted certain evidence. Id. at 75.

In the present case, the judge dismissed BTPD's argument concerning the causal link between her work and her injuries because the issue had been thoroughly discussed in conferences between her and counsel. Unfortunately, the contents of those discussions in chambers were not transcribed and no summary of the private exchanges were articulated in her decision. Counsel for the employer also complains that he was denied an opportunity to cross-examine the doctor who was involved in the private telephone conference. While we sense this may have occurred because of the sensitive nature of the discussions, we must emphasize the need for the creation of a proper and adequate record. The statements provided by the judge in her two decisions do not contain sufficient detail to satisfy the controlling standard. For example, the record before the court contained a number of medical reports, some reaching opposite conclusions as to Springer's illnesses and their causes. The judge mentioned the reports of only two doctors in her oral decisions, failing to address the findings of the other doctors. Furthermore, where she mentioned the doctors' reports, she makes no credibility findings and did not provide an explanation as to her reasoning. The judge's statements more closely resemble sweeping restatements of facts rather than conclusory explanations. Finally, the judge's decision lacks an explanation as to how she arrived at the $650 per week figure for temporary disability benefits or how the medical reports impacted her award decision.

Although the judge's ruling may in fact be supported in both law and fact, they do not provide this court with sufficient details for proper review. As a result, the matter is remanded to the Division of Workers' Compensation so that the court can present specific findings consistent with the comments set forth herein. In light of the remand of the matter, we do not reach the merits of BTPD's remaining arguments.

Remanded for further proceedings.

20080306

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