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William G. Dressel Jr, Executive Director - Michael J. Darcey, CAE, Asst Executive Director

Legal Q & A

 

Domestic Partnerships,
Worker's Compensation
Open Public Records



Deborah M. Kole
League Staff Attorney

Q I understand that the new domestic partnership law provides that registered domestic partners of employees covered under the State Health Benefits Program are eligible for coverage as dependents under the Plan. Does this mean that municipalities participating in the Program as employers must cover domestic partners of employees as dependents? This could be very expen ­sive for some local governments. If so, isn't this an unfunded state mandate?

A If such coverage were mandated by the new law, you might well have a point. However, while domestic partners of state employees must be offered health benefits as dependents, a municipality is not required to do so unless its governing body passes a resolution defining dependents under the State Health Benefits Program to include domestic partners. The law provides that "An employer other than the State that is participating in the State Health Benefits Program...may adopt a resolution providing that the term "dependents"...shall include domestic partners..." (emphasis added). If no such resolution is passed, covered dependents will not include domestic partners for purposes of health coverage of municipal employees. Thus, the new law is permissive, rather than mandatory, and is not an unfunded state mandate. Those municipalities participating in the State Health Benefits Program that choose to pass such a resolution and cover domestic partners of employees as dependents need not be reimbursed for the cost of such coverage by the state because they have chosen to provide the coverage.

Q One of our municipal police officers has filed a claim under the New Jersey Workers Compensation Act on the basis that he is suffering post traumatic stress disorder due to a violent incident four years ago. In that occurrence, his partner at the time was killed right in front of him. He has been on leave for six months, beginning after he was diagnosed with PTSD. The doctor who made the diagnosis said that the disorder was caused by the officer's witnessing of his partner's death. Isn't his claim barred by the two year statute of limitations under the Act, since the traumatic event occurred well over two years ago

 

A Recent case law indicates that it would not be time barred in this situation. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in a recent case that the statute of limitations under the Workers' Compensation Act for post traumatic stress disorder does not start to run until a "worker knows or should know that he or she has sustained a compensable injury," even when triggered by an accidental injury. Brunell v. Wildwood Crest Police Department and Stango v. Lower Township Police Department, A-126/127-2001, decided May 21, 2003. The Supreme Court opinion concerned two cases where officers developed PTSD after being involved in incidents resulting in the deaths of colleagues.

The Court said that PTSD may qualify as either an accidental injury or an occupational disease under the Workers' Compensation Act, depending upon its causation. Since the Act is to be construed liberally, the Court found that, whether the disorder is caused by continuous exposure to traumatic events or a single such event, the limitation period of two years to file a claim should not start until the disorder is discovered or reasonably should have been discovered. It is typical for PTSD to have a delayed onset, even when caused by a single traumatic event, the Court noted. Therefore, to run the limitations period from the time of the event would require the worker to file before he or she knew there was reason to make a claim. In this way, PTSD caused by a single, sudden traumatic event was found by the Court to be different from other accidental injuries, and should therefore be treated differently for purposes of the limita­tions period under the Workers' Compensation Act.

Q Is email sent by a municipal employee subject to the Open Public Records Act? If so, what about email sent from his or her home computer?

A Email, sent by municipal employees is subject to the Open Public Records Act under the same conditions that regular mail or other written communications by these employees are covered by the Act. It is the subject matter of the email, rather than where it originated or where it is stored, that determines whether it is a "public record" under OPRA. If it discusses official municipal business and the subject matter is not protected by an exemption under the law, then it can be requested and must be released under OPRA.

This column is for informational purposes only, and is not intended as legal advice.


 

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