The New Jersey Appellate Division recently addressed the question of whether, in a personal injury case, an injured plaintiff can introduce into evidence a disability determination by the Social Security Administration. The case is Villanueva v. Zimmer, decided June 21, 2013.
Plaintiff Rozelle Villanueva was involved in a motor vehicle accident, and claimed injuries to her neck and back. She was ultimately recommended to undergo spinal fusion surgery.
She was issued a “Notice of Award” from the Social Security Administration, determining she had attained disability status as of the date of her accident.
Her lawsuit claims included the contention she was unable to return to work due to her level of pain and inability to perform her job duties. The defense presented expert medical testimony questioning whether Villanueva’s symptoms were related to the accident, or were due to other causes.
Before the trial started, the defense filed a motion to preclude Villanueva from introducing evidence or testimony relating to her SSA disability determination. Villanueva argued she should be allowed to inform the jury about the fact she had been declared disabled by the SSA, and asked the court to treat the SSA determination as presumptive evidence of both her disability status and her claimed inability to return to her pre-accident employment. However, the trial judge ruled against her.
On appeal the Appellate Division affirmed, holding that a Social Security Administration determination of disability cannot be used as evidence of either a disability or inability to work, due to the fact the SSA decision is hearsay, for which no exception applies.
The Appellate Division specifically rejected plaintiff’s claim that the SSA determination constituted an exception to the hearsay rule under the “Public Acts Exception”, finding that exception did not apply to an SSA determination of disability. The Appellate Division also noted that an SSA disability hearing is not an adversarial proceeding, since the defendant had no ability to challenge the SSA’s determination.
Consequently, unless there is a Supreme Court reversal of the Appellate Division’s current ruling, SSA determinations of disability status cannot be used as evidence to prove disability or inability to work in a New Jersey personal injury action.