“Joint Employment” Argument Utilized to Secure Dismissal of Personal Injury Lawsuit Pursuant to New Jersey’s Workers’ Compensation ActPosted: July 17, 2015
In a recent case in Hudson County, New Jersey, Pisciotti Malsch successfully argued that a plaintiff’s civil lawsuit against its client was barred pursuant to New Jersey’s Workers’ Compensation Act.
The plaintiff was employed as a maintenance worker for a nonprofit organization (the Charity) that supports and provides assistance to developmentally disabled adults. The Charity leased a building on the property owned by Pisciotti Malsch’s client (the Church). While repairing a wheelchair ramp leading to the Charity’s offices, the plaintiff fell and suffered severe injuries (back injuries and torn rotator cuff requiring multiple surgeries). Plaintiff sued the Church, arguing that the Church owned the ramp at issue and had a duty to properly maintain the ramp.
Pisciotti Malsch took over the defense for the Church after discovery had been completed and after a motion for summary judgment based upon the Charitable Immunity Act had already been denied. Upon investigating the matter, it was discovered that the workers’ compensation carrier for the Church – not for the Charity – had provided the benefits to the plaintiff. Additionally, the operation of the Charity and the Church appeared to be intertwined (the pastor of the church was also the president of the charity; the two entities had the same address; the Church sponsored many of the Charity’s events).
Given this record, Pisciotti Malsch filed a motion for summary judgment arguing: (1) since the plaintiff actually received benefits from the Church’s worker’s compensation carrier, his civil claims were barred and the plaintiff’s subjective belief that he was receiving benefits from the Charity was irrelevant; and (2) alternatively, even if the plaintiff had not received benefits from the Church’s worker’s compensation carrier, due to the intertwined relationship of the two entities, the Church must still be considered a “joint employer” for purposes of the workers’ compensation bar under Hall v. Fanticone, 322 N.J. Super. 302 (App. Div. 1999).
In opposition, the plaintiff argued that he never intended to receive benefits from the Church’s workers’ compensation carrier, believing that his benefits were coming from the Charity’s workers’ compensation carrier. He also argued that the “special employment” doctrine should be applied and under that five-factor analysis, the Church and the Charity could not be considered dual employees for purposes of the workers’ compensation bar.
After oral argument, the Honorable Kimberly Espinales-Maloney, J.S.C., granted Defendant’s motion and dismissed the Complaint with prejudice. Judge Espinales-Maloney found that the plaintiff’s lawsuit was barred due to the Workers’ Compensation Act because it was undisputed that the plaintiff did, in fact, receive benefits from the Church’s workers’ compensation carrier. Further, the plaintiff’s subjective belief that he was only receiving benefits from the Charity’s carrier was found to be irrelevant.
The most interesting aspect of the decision, however, was the Court’s “joint employment” analysis. The Court applied a flexible analysis and determined that the Church and the Charity must also be considered joint employers for purposes of the Workers’ Compensation Act. Declining to adopt a formulaic approach, the Court put great emphasis on the fact that the plaintiff, by repairing the ramp, was serving the interests of both the Church and the Charity at the time of his alleged accident. Therefore, the Court found that even if the plaintiff had not received benefits from the Church’s workers’ compensation carrier, his civil lawsuit would still be barred:
[T]he Court determines that plaintiff is an employee of both [the Church] and [the Charity]. A joint employment situation arises when a single employee performs services for both entities, and when the service for each entity is closely related. Hall v. Fanticone, 322 N.J. Super. 302 at 307. Case law establishes that a joint employment situation can arise simply because of the joint character of the business arrangement between the two entities. Ibid. In fact, even the two cases principally relied upon by plaintiff in opposition, Blessing and Dominowski, recognized that the dual employment analysis should “not be subjected to mechanical or automatic application” and each case must be considered and determined upon its own particular facts. Dominowski v. Borough of Fanwood, 237 N.J. Super. at 456; Blessing, 94 N.J. Super. at 433-34.
Indeed, as the plaintiff points out in opposition, “the most significant inquiry is the determination of whose interests the employee was furthering at the time of the accident.” See Plaintiff Opposition at page 7 (quoting Dominowski, 237 N.J. Super. at 456).
Here, the two entities at issue, [the Church and the Charity], were interrelated. [The Reverend] was director of [the Church] and also the president of [the Charity]. Additionally, [the Church] sponsored and oversaw much of [the Charity’s] charitable efforts. The address for the two entities was also the same . . . . Plaintiff also admits that [the Reverend] knew what job plaintiff was performing. Additionally, throughout the entirety of this case, plaintiff has maintained that [the Church] owned and was responsible for the maintenance of the ramp at issue. Indeed, plaintiff previously averred to the Court that “the ramp causing plaintiff’s injuries was owned by defendant, [the Church], and the employer’s use of the ramp was nonexclusive and was used jointly by [the Church and the Charity].”
Thus, a joint-employment situation arose. Hall, supra, 322 N.J. Super. at 307. Given the undisputed facts and plaintiff’s own allegations, plaintiff’s work at the time of his accident served the purposes of both entities. Accordingly plaintiff is barred from collecting twice.
Written by Danny C. Lallis
Danny is a Partner with Pisciotti Malsch, and his practice includes appeals, product liability, and commercial litigation.