June Chalmers worked at a medical office, cleaning the office space with another colleague. On August 20, 2010, she fell on a piece of pipe while at work and suffered injuries which led to serious infections. Chalmers did not file a workers’ compensation claim and obtained treatment on her own. However, she did file a civil law suit against Dr. Stephen Swartz, (hereinafter “Stephen”) who practiced with his father in the building. She claimed that she was only employed by Dr. Stephen Swartz’s father, Dr. Harry Swartz, (hereinafter “Harry’), and she argued that she could sue Stephen because he owned the building where the medical offices were located. Stephen’s attorney filed a motion to dismiss the case on the ground that Chalmers’s suit was barred by the exclusive remedy rule.
The key facts were as follows: plaintiff Chalmers was hired in 2004 to clean the office. Both doctors worked on the premises. Harry began practicing medicine in the building in 1958, and his son Stephen joined the practice in 1987. Stephen testified in his deposition that he spent ten hours a day treating patients at a local hospital and then saw patients in the medical building in the evening. Both doctors practiced together, paid all expenses from a joint account, and obtained a workers’ compensation policy naming Harry and Stephen as policy holders. There were no partnership papers, although the two doctors considered themselves to be in a partnership.
Chalmers contended that only Harry hired her and employed her. He gave her direction in performing her job. Harry’s name was on the W-2 forms and he signed her paychecks, although the checks were written on a joint checking account.
In 2006 Harry transferred title to the building to Stephen for a payment of ten dollars. Stephen did not charge his father rent.
The trial judge ultimately granted the motion for summary judgment filed by Stephen and dismissed the case as barred by the exclusive remedy rule. Chalmers appealed and argued that she was not an employee of Stephen. The Appellate Division began by noting that clearly Chalmers was an employee and was not an independent contractor. The question was whether she was a joint employee of both Stephen and Harry and therefore unable to sue either doctor.
The court did not feel that analogy to case law on joint ventures was appropriate. “Because a joint venture is typically entered into for a limited, frequently one-time purpose, those principles have limited applicability here, beyond a general instruction to consider the totality of the circumstances.” Instead, the court adopted “a commonsense view,” in concluding that Chalmers was an employee of both doctors.
She was paid from a joint checking account in the names of both doctors. She was covered by a workers’ compensation policy in the names of both doctors. The policy, including the employee notification poster, listed both doctors as her employers. . . Plaintiff’s work served the purposes of both doctors, because she cleaned the entire building in which the medical practice was located, as opposed to limiting her cleaning services to Harry’s work space. Even if Harry directed plaintiff’s work, there is no dispute on this record that she performed her work for the benefit of both Harry and Stephen, and they both paid for her work. (citations omitted).
For these reasons the Court affirmed the dismissal of Chalmers’ suit. The Court did, however, allow the case to be transferred to the Division of Workers’ Compensation as if originally filed on time in the Division. It cited the rule in Townsend v. Great Adventure, 178 N.J. Super. 508 (App. Div. 1981) for the proposition that the Division of Workers’ Compensation was the proper jurisdiction for the claim of Chalmers and allowing the transfer, even if out of time, was in the interest of justice.
This case may be found at Chalmers v. Stephen J. Swartz, A-1472-12T4 (App. Div. October 8, 2013).