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FCE Supported County’s Decision To Terminate Employee Following Workers’ Comp Injury

By on March 10, 2022 in Court Rulings with 0 Comments

Functional capacity examinations (FCEs) can be very useful in determining the ability of a worker to perform essential job functions by removing the guesswork and instead providing accurate data on an employee’s physical abilities. In The Matter of Thalia Tretsis Middlesex County, Sheriff’s Office, No. A-3682-19 (App. Div. February 15, 2022) provides some important guidance on the use of FCEs.

Ms. Tretsis (hereinafter “the appellant”) injured her knee at work when she fell on ice in the County parking lot on March 6, 2015.  She treated with authorized doctors and returned to work, eventually resuming full duty.  However, some months later she began to have knee problems again and saw Dr. Gregory Gallick, who performed arthroscopic surgery on January 5, 2017.  Following the surgery the appellant experienced continuing knee pain.  Dr. Gallick approved light duty work in mid-February 2017, but appellant’s knee pain continued to bother her.  Dr. Gallick next ordered an FCE because he felt that the appellant was not recovering as well as he had expected.

Kinematic Consultants (now known as Atlantic Kinematics) performed the FCE on June 8, 2017. Dr. Gallick reviewed the results and opined that the appellant could not perform the full duties of a Sheriff’s Officer.  Appellant told Dr. Gallick that she “did not feel comfortable going back to her regular job” because of the pain and weakness in her knee.

On June 27, 2017, the County’s employee benefits specialist attended an employee status conference with the appellant to review the FCE results.  The FCE showed that appellant’s ability to life was limited to 35 pounds.  The appellant requested that the County send her to another orthopedic specialist.  The County agreed.

On July 13, 2017 Dr. David Epstein evaluated the appellant. The appellant advised Dr. Epstein that she was still having pain and discomfort in her knee.  Dr. Epstein recommended gel injections which did not remove the pain.  Dr. Epstein then recommended another FCE.

Kinematic then performed a second FCE on September 18, 2017, which documented that the appellant still had a deficit in her balance on her right side.  The report concluded that the appellant had continuing pain in her knee, which was worse when bending, walking and standing.  The FCE report concluded that the appellant could only perform light duty work.

Following the second FCE, Dr. Gallick reviewed the results and reached the conclusion that the appellant was at maximal medical improvement for her workers’ compensation injury and was unable to perform the essential functions of her job.  Dr. Epstein reviewed the second FCE and agreed that appellant was at MMI and was unable to perform her full duties.

On September 28, 2017 the County served appellant with a Preliminary Notice of Disciplinary Action with intention of removing her from her position.  Following a departmental hearing, the County issued a Final Notice of Disciplinary Action on November 19, 2017 and removed appellant from her position with the County.

Appellant sought a hearing following her removal.  At the hearing she did not testify but she presented testimony from Dr. Donald Polakoff, who examined the appellant on May 1, 2019 and concluded that appellant could perform the essential job functions.  He said that the appellant was able in his office to hop on one leg at a time, do pushups and squats, and lift a box over her head while doing three knee bends.  Dr. Polakoff admitted that he could not give an opinion on appellant’s fitness prior to May 1, 2019 because he had not seen her before that date.  He also did not offer any expert opinion on the value of FCE reports.

The Administrative Law Judge heard from various witnesses including departmental employees, Dr. Gallick, Dr. Epstein and Dr. Polakoff. She concluded on March 12, 2020 that appellant could not perform the duties of a Sheriff’s Officer at the time she was removed in 2017.  She rejected the appellant’s argument that Kinematic may have improperly performed the FCE.  An appeal followed to the Appellate Division, and appellant argued that the County’s actions in removing her were arbitrary and capricious and never identified the essential functions of a Sheriff’ Officer.

The Appellate Division affirmed the dismissal of appellant’s case and rejected the argument that the County failed to provide proof of the nature and scope of appellant’s required duties.  As an aside, the Court also noted that appellant filed an application for an accidental disability retirement pension following her removal, which the Division of Pensions and Benefits deferred pending the outcome of the removal case.  In its decision, the Appellate Division gave deference to the expertise of the professionals who performed the FCE.  The Court also cited to the applicable regulation, N.J.A.C. 4A: 2-2.3 (a) (3), which authorizes a public entity to remove an employee for inability to perform the functions of the job.

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About the Author

About the Author:

John H. Geaney, a shareholder and co-chair of Capehart Scatchard's Workers' Compensation department, began an email newsletter entitled Currents in Workers’ Compensation, ADA and FMLA in 2001 in order to keep clients and readers informed on leading developments in these three areas of law. Since that time he has written over 500 newsletter updates.

Mr. Geaney is the author of Geaney’s New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Manual for Practitioners, Adjusters & Employers. The manual is distributed by the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education (NJICLE). He also authored an ADA and FMLA manual as distributed by NJICLE. If you are interested in purchasing the manual, please contact NJICLE at 732-214-8500 or visit their website at www.njicle.com.

Mr. Geaney represents employers in the defense of workers’ compensation, ADA and FMLA matters. He is a Fellow of the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers of the American Bar Association and is certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a workers’ compensation law attorney. He is one of two firm representatives to the National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network. He has served on the Executive Committee of Capehart Scatchard for over ten (10) years.

A graduate of Holy Cross College summa cum laude, Mr. Geaney obtained his law degree from Boston College Law School. He has been named a “Super Lawyer” by his peers and Law and Politics. He serves as Vice President of the Friends of MEND, the fundraising arm of a local charitable organization devoted to promoting affordable housing.

Capehart Scatchard is a full service law firm with offices in Mt. Laurel and Trenton, New Jersey. The firm represents employers and businesses in a wide variety of areas, including workers’ compensation, civil litigation, labor, environmental, business, estates and governmental affairs.

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