On appeal from the Police and Firemen's Retirement System.
Bischoff, King and Polow. The opinion of the court was delivered by King, J.A.D.
This case involves the eligibility of a policeman for line-of-duty accidental disability retirement benefits. In August 1978 petitioner, formerly a patrolman with the Newark Police Department, filed an application with the Police and Firemen's Retirement System (PFRS) for accidental disability retirement benefits, alleging that he had become totally disabled as a result of a job-related accident sustained on May 24, 1976. The PFRS board initially denied accidental disability retirement benefits in January 1979, although it did grant an ordinary disability retirement. The accidental retirement benefit rate is two-thirds of annual salary, N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(2)(b); the ordinary disability retirement rate is 40% of annual salary, N.J.S.A. 43:16A-6(2)(b). On petitioner's application to reconsider, the board of trustees reaffirmed its denial and ruled that there was no factual dispute requiring a hearing. Upon appeal to this court we remanded the matter for a factual hearing.
After a hearing on the remand the administrative law judge found that petitioner's total disability was the direct result of the alleged traumatic event but that the event did not occur during the performance of petitioner's regular duties, as required by the statute. Accordingly, the judge recommended that the board's initial denial be affirmed. After considering petitioner's exceptions the PFRS board issued a final decision adopting administrative judge's decision. On this appeal petitioner contends that the board erred in reaching the legal conclusion that the accident did not occur during and "as a result of the performance of his regular or assigned duties," within N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(1).
Petitioner had served on the Newark Police Department since 1964. On May 24, 1976 he reported about 15 minutes before the 7:45 a.m. roll call which started his shift. All officers were required by regulation to report 15 minutes before the shift's roll call. Failure to so report could lead to discipline, in the discretion of the sergeant. Petitioner testified, without contradiction,
that the officers were compensated for this 15-minute pre-roll call period. On the day of the accident petitioner used the pre-shift 15 minutes to don his uniform and equipment, read the bulletin board, check the teletype for recent criminal activity and scan the stolen-car list. He dressed in the downstairs locker room and performed these other tasks on the main floor, after which he apparently returned to the locker room to await roll call.
At 7:45 a.m. the roll call bell rang. Petitioner ascended the stairway between the locker room and the first-floor roll call area; in his words, the accident happened as follows: "I was talking and going up the stairs with two other fellow officers and as I reached to hold on, grasped the handrail, roughly around the fifth step, the handrail broke off the stairs and I fell off the stairs sideways down into the stairwell." He injured the right side of his body, particularly the knee, which eventually required surgery. After attempts to return to light duty, he retired as totally disabled. The administrative law judge ruled that petitioner had satisfied all statutory criterion except one: the traumatic event did not occur "during and as a result of the performance of his regular or assigned duties."
Accidental disability retirement benefits under PFRS are governed by N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(1), which states in pertinent part:
(1) Upon the written application by a member in service . . . any member may be retired . . . on an accidental disability retirement allowance; provided, that the medical board, after a medical examination of such member, shall certify that the member is permanently and totally disabled as a direct result of a traumatic event occurring during and as a result of the performance of his regular or assigned duties and that such . . . member is mentally or physically incapacitated for the performance of his usual duty and of any other available duty in the department which his employer is willing to assign to him. [Emphasis supplied]
This subsection is the result of a 1964 amendment (L. 1964, c. 241, § 4) which abandoned the former and more liberal standard that the disability must have been the natural and proximate effect of an accident met in the actual performance of duty. Cattani v. Police & Firemen's Retire. Sys. Trustees , 69 N.J. 578, 583
(1976). The purpose of the several 1964 amendments was to increase the difficulty in qualifying for benefits. The amendments were the "legislative response" to the ...