This case is Nichols v. Board of Trustees, Public Employees' Retirement System, case number A-29-12, in the Supreme Court of New Jersey.
Ms. Nichols had a slip-and-fall accident on ice-covered steps at an entrance to her office while she was arriving to work early. Ms. Nichols worked as an Information Technology Specialist for the New Jersey Department of Treasury's Division of Administration. Ms. Nichols pursued legal action when she was denied accidental disability retirement benefits by the Board of Trustees for the Public Employees' Retirement System on grounds that her accident happened outside the course of her performing her regular required job duties. Her denial was based on grounds that her slip-and-fall accident took place outside the course of her performing her regular required job duties.
The New Jersey Supreme Court heard oral arguments on whether a state worker, after falling on ice-covered steps at an entrance to her office, and becoming permanently injured, while she was arriving to work early should be entitled to accidental disability retirement benefits. The New Jersey Supreme Court furthermore assessed where to draw the line between an employee's commute to work and when an employee actually starts regular work duties in a slip-and-fall dispute.
The high court was urged by Ms. Nichols' attorney, Samuel M. Gaylord of Gaylord Popp LLC, to overturn a decision by the Superior Court's Appellate Division affirming the denial of Nichols' benefits, arguing that even though Ms. Nichols arrived at work 30 minutes prior to her required start time, Nichols' injuries arose from her voluntary performance of her regular job duties and therefore should not result in a denial of her benefits.
The precedent established in the Supreme Court's decision in Kasper v. Board of Trustees of the Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund, was Ms. Nichols' attorney's main argument for approval of benefits. He argued that her case squarely falls under this precedent, where this teacher (Kasper), was required to arrive at her school early to distribute classroom media materials where she was attacked by a purse snatcher on the steps of the school. “Ms. Nichols was going into the place of work and what the pension board wants the court to do is dice it so finely and hold because she wasn't required to be at her job there were no duties for her to perform until she entered the floor she worked on,” Gaylord said. “How can this court deny Ms. Nichols when it has already granted Kasper?”
“The plaintiff [Nichols] was outside the building that was owned by a private entity, that was maintained by a private entity that had the obligation of clearing the snow,” Justice Barry Albin said. “Why doesn't that distinguish this case from Kasper?”
The justices were not fully convinced that Nichols was performing her assigned duties when she fell, albeit outside the building, but still on the steps of the building prior to entering the building, which as stated by Justice Albin, was owned and operated by a private entity and not her employer.
An attorney for PERS' Board of Trustees told the court that the requirements were simply were not met by Ms. Nichols to get such benefits since she was not at her desk, nor was she inside the actual building of her place of employment when she was injured. Chief Justice Stuart Rabner weighed in that the records of Ms. Nichols' employer did not establish that employees were prohibited from coming in early and that her supervisor was aware that she was doing so.
The PERS' Board of Trustees maintained that this revelation did not tip the balance in any one direction in determining whether Nichols' injuries occurred on the job.
Nichols is represented by Samuel M. Gaylord of Gaylord Popp LLC.
The board is represented by Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa's Office.