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Calix v. A2Z Universal

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

February 21, 2018

A2Z UNIVERSAL, et al, Defendants.


          PETER G. SHERIDAN, U.S.D.J.

         This personal injury action arose from a construction site accident. Plaintiff Yuriel Mondragon Calix, a construction worker who resides in New York, brings this present cause of action alleging claims of negligence against Defendant A2Z Universal LLC (hereinafter "A2Z"), a New Jersey-based Corporation, and its owner Roger West Jr, a New Jersey resident. The Court has diversity jurisdiction. Presently before the Court are both parties' motions for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 63 & 64); however, because there is a parallel matter pending before the Division of Workers' Compensation, the Court will administratively terminate the present case, pending resolution of the Worker's Compensation matter, with the right to reo-pen the matter upon completion of the Worker's Compensation matter.


         On June 3, 2014, Plaintiff sustained significant injuries when he was run over by an unmanned front end loader. (Defendant's Statement of Material Facts [SOMF] at ¶ 1). Moments before the accident occurred, another construction worker, Jesue Felipe Sanchez, had parked the front loader atop a hill. (Plaintiffs SOMF at ¶ 9). However, the front loader was not properly put into park; instead, it was placed in neutral and with the bucket not fully placed on the ground, caused the loader to roll downhill, striking Plaintiff. (Id; ECF No. 63-6 at 169-187, "Crandall Report").

         By way of background, January 10, 2013, A2Z, a New Jersey-based company owned by Roger West, Jr., contracted with Bill Vince to provide site remediation and excavation of solid waste at Vince's landfill site in Old Bridge, New Jersey. (Def s SOMF at ¶ 7; ECF No. 64-3, "Remediation Contract"). Under the terms of the contract, A2Z agreed to provide wood shredding, rock crushing, and grading services. (Id.). Specifically, A2Z was responsible for "cleaning debris, including organics such as tree roots, creosote logs and organics that were decomposing, which was a violation issued from the DEP." (Def s SOMF at ¶ 8). It is undisputed that A2Z owned the work vehicles onsite and the front end loader that injured Plaintiff. (Id.). According to Plaintiff, Vince also contracted with RNR Corporation (hereinafter, "RNR"), another New Jersey-based corporation owned by West, to recycle leaves and wood waste found at the site. (Plaintiffs SOMF at ¶¶ 25-26). Specifically, Vince allowed RNR to use the site's Class B Recycling Facility, Reclamation Technology, Inc., and the parties agreed to share the revenue earned from manufacturing the top soil and mulch collected from the site. (Id.).

         On May 12, 2016, the Division of Workers' Compensation issued an order awarding Plaintiff temporary disability benefits, worth approximately $27, 896.40. (ECF No. 63-6 at 43, "Worker's Comp Order"). Thereafter, A2Z appealed the worker's compensation order, contending that there was insufficient evidence to support the judge's determination that A2Z was Plaintiffs employer. See Calix v. A2Z Universal Landscaping, No. A-3978-15T2, 2017 N.J.Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2223, at *1 ( N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. Sept. 7, 2017). In reversing and vacating the judge's order, the Appellate Division concluded that "the record before the judge was bereft of any evidence that A2Z employed [Plaintiff]." Id. at *6. Specifically, the court noted that the only evidence before the judge was Plaintiffs own certifications, wherein he testified that he had no knowledge of who his employer was besides having been hired by "Steve and Roger West." Id. The matter is currently before the Division of Workers' Compensation.

         Here, the key issue presently before the Court is whether Plaintiff was an employee of A2Z or its subcontractor RNR. Plaintiff claims that, at all relevant times, he was an employee of RNR; A2Z claims he was their employee.


         In deciding whether to abstain from adjudicating a particular case, when a parallel state administrative proceeding remains pending, federal courts must analyze their abstention ability under Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315 (1943). See PTK, LLC v. Borough of Fort Lee, No. 07-2166, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 22934, at *11 (D.N.J. Mar. 24, 2008). Under Burford, "a federal court should refuse to exercise its jurisdiction in a manner that would interfere with a state's efforts to regulate an area of law in which state interests predominate and in which adequate and timely state review of the regulatory scheme is available." Chiropractic Am. v. LaVecchia, 180 F.3d 99, 104 (3d Cir. 1999). "The purpose of Burford is to avoid federal intrusion into matters of local concern and which are within the special competence of local courts." Matusow v. Trans-Cty. Title Agency, LLC, 545 F.3d 241, 247 (3d Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).


         Recognizing that Plaintiffs workers' compensation claim is currently pending before the Division of Workers' Compensation, the Court sua sponte requested the parties provide supplemental briefs addressing whether federal abstention and related doctrines apply. Defendant contends that Pullman[1] abstention applies, since a stay, pending disposition of the workers' compensation claim, is more appropriate than a dismissal under Burford. Plaintiff responds, arguing that Burford abstention is not appropriate since he presents purely legal claims, which do not involve difficult questions of state law. Having reviewed the parties' submissions, the Court finds that Burford abstention, rather than Pullman, is appropriate.

         As background, the State of New Jersey has a comprehensive statutory scheme that regulates workers' compensation. Under New Jersey's Workers' Compensation Act, '"[w]hen employer and employee shall by agreement, either express or implied... accept the provisions of the Compensation Act, employers shall compensate employees for work-related injuries 'arising out of and in the course of employment... without regard to the negligence of the employer[.]"' Estate of Kotsovska, ex rel. Kotsovska v. Liebman, 116 A.3d 1, 10 (N.J. Sup. Ct. 2015) (quoting N.J.S.A. § 34:15-7). "The remedial purpose of the Workers' Compensation Act" is "to make benefits readily and broadly available to injured workers through a non-complicated process." Tlumac v. High Bridge Stone, 902 A.2d 222, 225 (N.J. Sup. Ct. 2006). In order to further this public policy, "[t]he Legislature has conferred 'exclusive jurisdiction of all claims for workers' compensation benefits' upon the Division of Workers' Compensation." Greenberg v. O 'Gorman, 491 A.2d 800, 803 ( N.J.Super. Ct. Law Div. 1984) (quoting N.J.S.A. § 34:15-49)).

         Moreover, New Jersey sets forth a stringent administrative process for individuals seeking workers' compensation benefits. After filing a motion for temporary disability or medical benefits, a period of discovery commences, before a formal hearing is held before the Judge of Compensation. See N.J.A.C. §§ 12:235-3.2, -3.8, and -3.12. It remains the employer's burden of proof to defeat an employee's claim for workers' compensation benefits. See N.J.S.A. § 34:15-7. In addition, upon rendering a decision at the administrative hearing, "[a]ny party may appeal from the judgment of a judge of compensation to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court, " which "shall be conclusive and binding" on the parties. N.J.S.A. § 34:15-66.

         Against this background, the Court considers whether abstention is warranted. First, the Court finds Defendant's reliance on Pullman abstention inapplicable. "Pullman abstention instructs federal courts to abstain from ruling on federal constitutional issues where clarification of an uncertain state law might make the federal constitutional ruling unnecessary." Bath Unlimited, Inc. v. Ginarte, O'Dwyer, Winograd & Laracuente, No. 04-3919, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 22654, at *9 (D.N.J. Sept. 29, 2005); see also Erwin Chemerinsky, Federal Jurisdiction § 12.2, at 831-32 (2016). (Under Pullman, a "federal court should not resolve the federal constitutional question until the matter has been sent to state court for a determination of the uncertain issue of state ...

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