New Jersey adjusters sometimes ask why future benefits under an order approving settlement with a percentage of disability cannot be paid in a lump sum to the injured worker. In other words, why is there a requirement that future payments be paid out over a period of many weeks or even many years? This question goes to the foundation of the New Jersey system. The New Jersey Act is social legislation, and Judges of Compensation are required to look out for the best interests of injured workers. There is a legislative conviction that dependable weekly payments of permanent partial or total disability are almost always in the best interest of injured workers. The right to reopen workers’ compensation cases is extended until two years from the last payment, (which benefits the employee), and the insistence on weekly payments avoids the temptation to risk a large sum of money in an exercise of bad judgment, perhaps gambling or betting on a hot stock.
If an adjuster were to mistakenly advance, for example, 100 weeks of future payments in one lump sum, this would amount to an impermissible commutation. There is a procedure under N.J.S.A. 34:15-25 for employees to obtain a commutation of future payments, but an application must be filed with the Director of the Division for judicial permission to commute an award. Usually the Judge of Compensation who approved the settlement hears the commutation request. The statute reads, “Compensation may be commuted . . . at its present value, when discounted at five per centum (5%) interest, upon application of either party, with due notice to the other, if it appears that such commutation will be for the best interest of the employees or the dependents of the deceased employee, or that it will avoid undue expense or undue hardship to either party. . .”
There are few published cases on commutations, but generally judges focus on whether there is an undue hardship on the injured worker or family or a compelling need that may justify a lump sum commutation. One example comes from Harrison v. A & J Friedman Supply, Co., 372 N.J. Super. 326 (App. Div. 2004) where the applicant, a dependent spouse, applied for a commutation of a dependency award because the building she resided in was in default to the City of New York, giving her the opportunity to purchase her Manhattan residence for $370,000. She could obtain a mortgage for about half that amount, but she needed to commute future permanency payments to raise the balance of the purchase price.
The Judge of Compensation reviewed the New Jersey Administrative Code provisions on commutations. The relevant code provision provided, “No award for total disability or dependency benefits shall be commuted.” The Judge of Compensation therefore denied the application, and the petitioner appealed. The Appellate Division disagreed with the administrative code provision. It said, “A plain reading of this statute, spurred by the absence of any limit on the types of compensation benefits that may be commuted, suggests that the discretion to permit commutation was intended to encompass all types of benefits, including the total disability and dependency benefits specifically referenced in N.J.A.C. 12:235-6.3 (d).” The Court held that under certain circumstances a commutation may be made in dependency and total and permanent disability cases.
The Court did not order the commutation but it sent the case back to the Judge of Compensation for further proceedings. “Certainly, upon remand, the parties should be afforded an opportunity to present information regarding the appellant’s financial status, her ability to maintain her lifestyle in the absence of the weekly benefits, the value of the property appellant is desirous of purchasing, the availability of funds other than the dependency benefits, and the availability of other financing that might render commutation unnecessary.” As one can see from reading this quotation, commutations are not simple matters. Judges must analyze many different issues and develop an understanding of the injured workers’ financial status before making an informed decision. It is a case by case analysis often requiring substantial testimony. In actuality, there are surprisingly few commutation requests annually in the Division.
This legislative preference for weekly payments of permanency benefits also explains why annuity companies are less involved in New Jersey than in other state workers’ compensation systems. In many states, an annuity company may offer an injured worker a stream of payments changing over time, perhaps increasing in future years at a higher rate. But in New Jersey payments must be made according to the statute. If an award is entered for 60% permanent partial disability, it is paid out over 360 weeks at one set rate. If an annuity company were to contract with the employer to make those 360 weeks of payments, the annuity company would be required to make the payments at the rate established in the court order. The annuity company could not vary the rate or increase the rate while shortening the period of payments or make any other material change without the permission of a Judge of Compensation.
Over all, the New Jersey system makes good sense, even though injured workers may sometimes be disappointed that their payments must be spread out over many weeks. Settlements by lump sum payments do happen frequently in New Jersey, of course, under N.J.S.A. 34:15-20, but these settlements are only available where there is a genuine issue of causation, liability, jurisdiction or dependency. A smaller percentage of cases is settled under Section 20 than on a percentage basis under N.J.S.A. 34:15-22.
The New Jersey system is designed to provide protection for injured workers and their families by creating a steady and dependable stream of tax free payments over a period of weeks or even years, depending on the severity of the injury and its impact on the employee’s work or non-work life. Permission to apply for a commutation is potentially available to any recipient of a percentage disability award paid out over future weeks, but the employee must prove to the Judge of Compensation that such a commutation is in his or her best interest.
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