On Sept. 3, 2019 the Appellate Division of the Superior Court upheld the New Jersey Commissioner of Education’s dismissal of a claim by an employee’s spouse for benefits because the claim was not filed in the amount of time allowed by regulations.
According to New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) regulations, any appeal of board action must be filed when the individual “learns, or reasonably should learn, the existence of a state of facts which may equate in law with a cause of action.” Burd v. N.J. Tel. Co., 76 N.J. 284, 291 (1978).
The matter at issue dates back to 2010 when the now-deceased employee of the board was diagnosed with a disease that prevented him from performing his job responsibilities as an assistant superintendent. Between 2010 and 2012, when this employee retired, there were numerous discussions between the employee and staff about the amount of sick time that he had accumulated during his employment and how much he would use during his illness.
Ultimately, upon his retirement in 2012, it was determined that the employee should be paid $74,553.92 for his accrued but unused sick time. This money was paid in two separate checks in 2012 and 2013, with those checks being negotiated in 2012 and 2013 respectively. In 2014, a representative of the employee requested information about the calculation and the parties discussed the possibility of mediation as a means of remedying any potential discrepancies. Thereafter, no response to requests for information were received by this representative and no mediation occurred. The employee unfortunately passed away on Dec. 3, 2014.
In 2015 and 2016, the surviving spouse of the employee requested items she deemed to be missing from her husband’s personnel file. The board supplied the documents as requested. On Jan. 30, 2017, the spouse filed a petition of appeal with the Commissioner alleging that her husband never used sick time during his final years of employment. She challenged the retirement benefits payable to her as a surviving spouse.
In 2017, both the administrative law judge and the commissioner found that the petition of appeal should be dismissed for failure to file within 90 days, pursuant to the regulation. The Appellate Division reaffirmed the decisions and set forth that the intent of the 90-day rule, is “to stimulate litigants to pursue the right of action within a reasonable time, so that the opposing party may have a fair opportunity to defend” and “to penalize dilatoriness and serve as a measure of repose by giving security and stability to human affairs.” Kaprow v. Bd. of Educ. v. Berkley Twp., 131 N.J. 572, 582 and 587 (1993).
The administrative law judge, commissioner and Appellate Division all agreed that there were three potential triggering dates when the 90-day rule may have started, and in none of the cases would the petition have been timely. The Appellate Division also found that while the regulation allows for the relaxation of the rule in certain circumstances, the petitioner had made no such showing. As such, the appeal was dismissed.
Any questions related to this matter and how this finding may relate to your district should be discussed with your board attorney or with NJSBA’s Department of Legal and Labor Relations at (609) 278-5254.