Through John H. Geaney
Monday, December 13, 2021 | 0
On Wednesday, the New Jersey Appeal Division upheld the dismissal of a serious back injury complaint filed by school nurse Meghan Ryan-Wirth against the Hoboken Board of Education and the Pooled Insurance Program Joint Insurance Fund.
The petitioner, a school nurse, was injured while participating in a morning cardio club activity with teachers and students. the Case is important because he is one of the first to discuss the recent New Jersey Supreme Court decision in Goulding Friendship House c. NJ.
The key facts are that Ryan-Wirth filed a petition and petition for medical and temporary disability benefits, seeking an order requiring the Hoboken Board of Education to pay for his fusion surgery as well as benefits from temporary disability.
Capehart Scatchard defended the Hoboken Board of Education and the Pooled Insurance Program. Shareholder Andrea Schlafer successfully handled the trial and the appeal.
The facts of the case were unusual. The petitioner, a full-time school nurse at Hoboken Middle School, applied for a student monitor position for additional income. The service was known as the AM Care program for students who had to arrive early to school.
Teachers and other staff who provided supervision services received an allowance of $ 30 per day. The petitioner arrived on September 10, 2019, but claimed to have received very few instructions on the first day. The next day, she arrived at school early with the intention of participating in the AM Care program. However, she was advised that there was no need for additional monitors that day.
The facts were strongly contested at this stage of the case. Ryan-Wirth testified that upon entering the school, she was greeted by the principal, who was wearing athletic clothes. She claimed that the manager had informed her that there was no need for additional monitors from the AM Care program that morning, but that she was welcome to participate in the cardio club.
Ryan-Wirth argued that she felt compelled to participate in the cardio club because the manager was her boss. She also claimed that she was never told that she would not be paid for her participation in the cardio club, which was located next to the cafeteria where the AM Care program was located. She said she put on some workout clothes and then walked into the cardio club.
Ryan-Wirth sustained serious back injuries on September 11, 2019, as she pulled a car tire in a relay race, falling backward on her rear end. She was taken by ambulance to hospital and ended up undergoing major spinal surgery.
Witnesses for the commission disputed the petitioner’s version. The manager said he saw the Grievor that morning wearing workout gear before attending the cardio club. He told her that there were already enough instructors for the AM Care program, but that she could join the cardio club if she wanted. He added that the petitioner would not be paid.
According to the program’s website, the goal of the cardio club was to incorporate math into students’ fitness activities. For example, the website described a recent session in which students ran outdoors and “paced and timed sprint times.” Some runs were mapped using GPS technology and students were able to monitor their heart rates, according to the website.
There were other witnesses who testified in the case. Ryan-Wirth called a teacher to testify on his behalf, but this testimony hurt his case. According to the teacher, it was the petitioner who asked her if she was going to participate in the cardio club, and the petitioner said it seemed like fun. This teacher also said that she believed the cardio club was completely voluntary and would not be a paid activity.
In cross-examination, the petitioner admitted that she had a personal motive for wanting to participate in the cardio club. She said that six weeks after giving birth, her doctor allowed her to exercise. She would go for a walk and go to the gym twice a week. After giving birth, she took part in a challenge to lose 30 pounds by Christmas for a cash prize.
The petitioner’s lawyer claimed that the petitioner was on the school grounds on a working day when she was injured and felt compelled to attend the cardio club. The compensation judge ruled against the complainant and found that her injury was not work-related.
The petitioner appealed. The Court of Appeal first considered the recent decision in Goulding, where a cook volunteered to take part in a day of family fun and injured himself while cooking for guests and employees. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that Kim Goulding’s injury was not a recreational activity because she was doing the same work she always did during the week and because she did not participate in any of the games or activities.
The Appeal Division ruled that Ryan-Wirth was not participating in a recreational activity under NJSA 34: 15-7 because the cardio club was not truly a social or recreational activity, since it focused on student learning. But as far as the complainant is concerned, the Appeal Division found that the activity was not the result of the work. The court said:
The file showed that the applicant was a school nurse and not a teacher. His duties included performing health examinations, treating illnesses, orienting primary care providers and monitoring immunizations. She admitted that she was not performing any of her duties as a school nurse at the cardio club… The petitioner did not monitor, supervise, instruct or assist the participating students. The applicant’s participation in the cardio club was limited to cardiovascular exercises. This was not an “incident of regular employment” as a school nurse within the meaning of NJSA 34: 15-7.
The Court of Appeal also endorsed the conclusion of the compensation judge that the applicant’s motivation was very personal when he exercised and tried to lose weight. The judge noted the following:
“He also said she had a personal health goal of losing 30 pounds by Christmas and by doing that she would earn $ 661. She admitted that there was a personal interest in being healthy and that she enjoyed exercising. She went on to say that she worked out whenever she could, even engaging in 5k runs during her pregnancy and after her pregnancy ended… She thought the cardio club would be “fun.” And chose to do so. “
The court also ignored the petitioner’s argument that she was obliged to participate. The Court of Appeal focused on the many lay witnesses who said the cardio club was voluntary and employees were not reprimanded for not participating. The court concluded that there was no sign of coercion.
Overall, this case agrees with Goulding when he concludes that the overall activity itself – the cardio club – was not a recreational or social activity, since student learning was paramount. The Appeal Division seems to be saying that the cardio club was really about educating the students and maybe the teachers who work with them.
Likewise, in Goulding, the Supreme Court found that the Saturday afternoon family day had a business purpose for the employer. This event was also not considered recreational or social under NJSA 34: 15-7. To earn a recreational or social activity claim, the employee must prove a benefit to the employer beyond improved health and morale.
In both cases, the court ruled that this test did not apply because the primary purpose of each activity was not truly recreational or social.
Yet Goulding’s injury was found to be compensable, unlike Ryan-Wirth’s. Neither one participated in any recreational or social activity, but one won and the other lost. How to square the two results?
The Appeal Division found that a difference between the two cases was that Goulding was doing her regular job as a cook on the family fun day. Ryan-Wirth was not doing his regular job as a school nurse. The Supreme Court went so far as to say that Goulding was actually working on the event, but was not paid. She gave of her time.
The differences are subtle, but it’s clear Ryan-Wirth lost because the court saw no connection between her activity and her job as a nurse, and because of her personal interest in exercise.
In the end, it was not about the status of recreational or social activity but rather a direct analysis of the “work-based” norm. Neither the Compensation Judge nor the Appeal Division saw how the Applicant’s injury resulted from her work as a nurse or supervisor in the AM Care program. The decision makes sense for the reasons given by both the Claims Judge and the Appeal Division.
What remains of the section 7 legal test? It now appears to be much more restricted to non-commercial activities, such as a game of after-work softball between employees of one company against another company. This would be an example of a legal recreational activity that would be found to be non-compensable because there would be no way to claim that a softball game between two law firms, for example, would promote an advantage to the employer beyond that. improved health and morale. .
John H. Geaney is a lawyer, executive committee member and shareholder of Capehart Scatchard, a New Jersey defense law firm. This message appears courtesy of Geaney’s New Jersey Worker Compensation Blog.