On appeal from the New Jersey Department of Labor, Division of Workers' Compensation, Docket No. 2004-34020.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Lisa and Lihotz.
Quick Chek appeals from a judgment of the Division of Workers' Compensation awarding petitioner, Marina Juana Estrada, full dependency benefits of $227.98 per week for 450 weeks. Quick Chek argues (1) that the trial court's credibility findings are not supported by reasons grounded in the record, (2) that the trial court erred in finding that petitioner satisfied the dependency requirements of N.J.S.A. 34:15-13f, and (3) that the discrepancy between the trial court's oral opinion and the final order of judgment requires a remand for clarification. We reject these arguments and affirm.
On July 16, 2004, Alfonso Estrada Moron, also known as Eduardo Zambrano, was shot and killed in a hold-up while working as an assistant manager for Quick Chek. There is no dispute that decedent was acting in the course of his employment when he was killed, and there is no dispute about the amount of his weekly wages.
Petitioner is the mother of decedent. She lives in Peru. She filed a dependency claim, alleging she was solely dependent on decedent. She testified that her husband died in September 1996, and that decedent moved to the United States in September 1999 so he could work to support her. From 1999 to 2004, decedent was her sole source of support, sending her $600 per month, plus an additional $600 on her birthday and $1000 at Christmas. According to petitioner, decedent worked two full-time jobs.
Petitioner acknowledged that she has four other adult children, but said none of them contributed to her support because they all had families of their own to support. Since decedent's death, petitioner said she has been living at a subsistence level with money provided by her eleven brothers and sisters. She currently rents a room from her niece for $200 per month.
Petitioner was unable to present any documentary evidence to corroborate the regular payments by decedent to her. She said decedent sent the money to an agency in Peru, and she would go there and "give the name and they give me the money in cash."
The judge of compensation credited petitioner's testimony, setting forth in detail his reasons for doing so in his oral decision of October 11, 2007. He therefore entered a full dependency award in petitioner's favor. In his oral decision, the judge of compensation stated, "Petitioner's dependency benefits are $227.98 per week, 450 weeks at that rate equates to $102,500.91 and continuing until Petitioner either dies or remarries."
The standard for appellate review of a workers' compensation judge's determination is the same as that used for review of any non-jury case. Brock v. Public Serv. Elec. & Gas Co., 149 N.J. 378, 383 (1997). Our review is limited to "whether the findings made could reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence present in the record, considering the proofs as a whole, with due regard to the opportunity of the one who heard the witnesses to judge of their credibility and, in the case of agency review, with due regard also to the agency's expertise where such expertise is a pertinent factor." [Sager v. O.A. Peterson Constr., Co., 182 N.J. 156, 164 (2004) (quoting Close v. Kordulak Bros., 44 N.J. 589, 599 (1965)).]
We "may not 'engage in an independent assessment of the evidence as if [we] were the court of first instance.'" Ibid. (quoting State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 471 (1999)). As long as there is sufficient credible evidence in the record to support the compensation judge's conclusions, we must uphold those findings, even if we believe we would have reached a different result. Ibid. (citing In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644, 657 (1999)).
Applying this highly deferential standard, we have no hesitancy in concluding that the factual findings of the compensation judge are amply supported by the record evidence. This was primarily a credibility determination. The factfinder had the "'opportunity to hear and see the witnesses and to have the "feel" of the case, which a reviewing court can not enjoy.'" State v. Elders, 192 N.J. 224, 244 (2007) (quoting State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 161 (1964)). The factfinder also had the ability to draw inferences "from the ordinary experiences of life and common knowledge as to the natural tendencies of human nature, as well as upon observations of the demeanor and character of the witness." State v. Vandeweaghe, 177 N.J. 229, 239 (2003) (citation and internal quotations omitted).
Quick Chek next argues that petitioner failed to meet her burden of proving full dependency status under N.J.S.A. 34:15-13f. At trial, petitioner introduced into evidence decedent's Peruvian birth certificate, on which the name "Juana Moron de Estrada" appears. Petitioner testified ...