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In re Gonzalez


July 28, 2010


On appeal from a Final Agency Decision of the Civil Service Commission, No. 2009-1499.

Per curiam.


Submitted May 18, 2010

Before Judges Wefing and Messano.

The City of Passaic (Passaic) appeals from the final decision of the Civil Service Commission (the Commission) that approved respondent Miriam Gonzalez's "participation in [Passaic's] donated leave program [(DLP)] from September 23, 2008 until November 24, 2008." At all relevant times, Gonzalez was employed as a clerk in Passaic's Human Services Division. On September 14, 2008, she was found unconscious in a car and was admitted to St. Mary's Hospital through its emergency room. She remained hospitalized through September 16, and thereafter did not return to work.

In a letter dated September 29, her physician, Paul C. Krisa, M.D., diagnosed Gonzalez with "syncope (fainting) and hypokelenia (low potassium) . . . ." Krisa indicated that "[t]he duration of her condition and its recovery started on September 14th and will go thru [sic] October 12th . . . ." He further opined that Gonzalez's "condition although currently under control, was [a] life-threatening illness at the time."

Gonzalez utilized her available sick time through September 22, and then applied for donated sick leave through Passaic's DLP. Passaic's personnel assistant, Maria T. Goregoitia, responded on September 30 denying Gonzalez's request. She advised that in order "[t]o qualify for donated leave, a catastrophic or life[-]threatening illness must exist . . . ." Citing Krisa's "certification," Goregoitia advised that Gonzalez's "life[-]threatening condition" existed only from September 14 to September 16. She included in her response, an application for unpaid family medical leave for Gonzalez to complete.

Gonzalez supplied another note from Krisa dated October 2 stating that she "remain[ed] under [his] care and . . . require[d] close monitoring until she returns to work on October 12. What was a life[-]threatening condition could recur if not properly observed." Gonzalez did not return to work on October 12; however, on October 17, Krisa sent another note indicating that she should be "excuse[d] . . . from work for [an] additional [two] weeks."

Gonzalez applied for an unpaid family medical leave on October 22, effective September 23 through November 3. Passaic approved that leave. On October 29, Krisa supplied another note medically clearing Gonzalez to return to work on November 10; on November 7, another note indicated Gonzalez remained under Krisa's care, and that she could not return to work until November 17. She ultimately returned to work on November 24.

Gonzalez appealed Passaic's denial of her request for donated leave to the Commission. She contended that she was entitled to donated sick leave pursuant to Passaic's DLP; Passaic argued that Gonzalez's medical condition was only life-threatening from September 14 to 16, and therefore she failed to satisfy a precondition for eligibility.

After reviewing the contentions, the Commission concluded:

[A] review of the documentation in this case clearly demonstrates that [Gonzalez]'s illness qualifies as a catastrophic health condition as defined as a life[-]threatening condition or combination of conditions under N.J.A.C. 4A:6-1.22(b)1. Specifically, her medical documentation states that she was initially diagnosed with a serious, life [-]threatening illness that required close monitoring by her physician from the onset on September 14 . . . until November 24 . . . when she was cleared to return to work. . . . [A] review of the documentation submitted reveals that the life [-]threatening condition could return if not closely monitored by her physician. . . . [Passaic's] assertion that . . . Gonzalez's condition was only life threatening for the days that she was hospitalized is misplaced.

The fact that the illness was serious enough that it could return if not properly monitored, placing . . . Gonzalez at significant risk of further hospitalization or complications, is indicative of a catastrophic health condition.

The Commission granted Gonzalez's appeal and ordered her participation in Passaic's DLP. The Commission further ordered that any donated leave time Gonzalez might receive must "be credited towards her leave of absence without pay." This appeal followed.

Passaic contends that Gonzalez did not qualify for participation in the DLP "because she did not suffer from a catastrophic health condition during the period of requested leave," and, therefore, the Commission "abused its discretion" in granting Gonzalez's administrative appeal. We have considered the argument in light of the record and applicable legal standards. Because the Commission's decision "is supported by sufficient credible evidence on the record as a whole[,]" R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(D), we affirm. We add only these brief comments.

Our "review of a final agency [action] is [quite] limited." In re Carter, 191 N.J. 474, 482 (2007). "[I]f in reviewing an agency decision an appellate court finds sufficient credible evidence in the record to support the agency's conclusions, that court must uphold those findings even if the court believes that it would have reached a different result." In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644, 657 (1999) (citations omitted). We "'will reverse the decision of the administrative agency only if it is arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable or it is not supported by substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole.'" Ibid. (quoting Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 581 (1980)).

Although we are not bound by an administrative agency's legal opinions, Levine v. State, Dep't of Transp., 338 N.J. Super. 28, 32 (App. Div. 2001) (citing G.S. v. Dep't of Human Servs., 157 N.J. 161, 170 (1999)), the "'agency's interpretation of statutes and regulations within its implementing and enforcing responsibility is ordinarily entitled to our deference.'" Wnuck v. N.J. Div. of Motor Vehicles, 337 N.J. Super. 52, 56 (App. Div. 2001) (quoting In re Appeal by Progressive Cas. Ins. Co., 307 N.J. Super. 93, 102 (App. Div. 1997)).

N.J.A.C. 4A:6-1.22(g) permits local appointing authorities to establish DLPs if they comply with regulations governing DLPs for State employees. Pursuant to N.J.A.C. 4A:6-1.22(a)(4)(i), an employee is eligible for donated leave if she "[s]uffers from a catastrophic health condition or injury[,]" which in turn is defined as "[a] life-threatening condition or combination of conditions . . . ." N.J.A.C. 4A:6-1.22(b)(1)(i).

In reality, Passaic's challenge to the Commission's decision rests on the contention that there was insufficient medical evidence to support a conclusion that Gonzalez suffered from "a life[-]threatening condition" after she was released from the hospital. However, the Commission noted that Gonzalez remained under Krisa's observation and care until he released her to return to work on November 24; that during that time, her condition needed to be closely monitored, implicitly outside the workplace or at least without its possible interferences; and that absent such monitoring, her condition could recur and would again pose a threat to her life. We will not second guess the legal conclusions reached by the Commission based upon those undisputed facts, in combination with its interpretation of its own regulations.



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