On appeal from a Final Decision of the Board of Trustees, State Police Retirement System.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lintner, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Cuff, Lintner and Gilroy.
Petitioner, Robert Patterson, appeals from a January 27, 2005, final determination by the Board of Trustees of the State Police Retirement System (the Board) rejecting an Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) recommendation and denying Patterson's application for accidental disability benefits, N.J.S.A. 43:15A-43. Petitioner was rendered totally and permanently disabled from a combined Major Depression Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a direct result of a verbal assault committed by a squad sergeant. The central issue to be decided in this appeal is whether the abuse suffered by petitioner qualifies as a traumatic event in accordance with Kane v. Board of Trustees, Police & Firemen's Retirement System, 100 N.J. 651, 663 (1985). Under the circumstances of this case, we conclude, that petitioner's permanent and total disability resulted directly from a series of traumatic psychic events entitling him to an accidental disability retirement allowance.
The undisputed facts, which were presented to the ALJ by stipulation, are as follows.*fn1 Petitioner enrolled in the State Police Retirement System in November 1987, at which time he was almost twenty-three years old. In January 1998, he was charged with domestic violence involving an altercation with his girlfriend wherein he broke her nose. As a result, he was required to surrender his service revolver, assigned to desk duty, and transferred to the Hightstown Station. At approximately 9:00 p.m. on the first day of his new assignment, petitioner, who was working the 2:00 p.m. to midnight shift, came in contact with the squad sergeant, supervisor of an overlapping shift. The squad sergeant assembled his subordinates in the briefing room while petitioner remained at his desk in the radio room. After the squad was assembled, the squad sergeant called petitioner into the briefing room and introduced him by saying:
This is Bob Patterson, he's a Fat Fuck, a piece of shit rat, he will drag you down, [d]on't look at him don't talk to him, if he says anything to you ignore him, have no interaction with him, he's only here until he gets fired.
The squad sergeant then told petitioner to get the "fuck" out of the room.
Petitioner returned to the radio room. He felt like vomiting. Later, the squad sergeant came into the radio room, stood directly in front of petitioner with clenched fists, and asked, "Do you have a problem?" Petitioner looked down rather than at the squad sergeant. The squad sergeant then asked, "Do you have a problem understanding me?" Petitioner responded "No sir." The squad sergeant then told petitioner to "go downstairs and get changed you piece of shit, I don't want to be in the same building as you." Petitioner obeyed. There was no doubt in petitioner's mind that if he did not submit he would be physically assaulted. As petitioner was about to leave the building, the squad sergeant approached and, standing a few inches from petitioner's face, said, "From now on when my squad relieves you, you are to leave the building, DO YOU UNDERSTAND?" Petitioner again felt that if he did not passively acquiesce to the squad sergeant's bullying he would be physically assaulted. Petitioner left and drove around for hours, contemplating suicide. He was "humiliated" and felt "stripped of [his] manhood." He finally arrived home at 3:00 a.m. but could not sleep.
When petitioner returned to work, he was told by another Sergeant that he did not have to leave the building when the squad sergeant's squad reported for duty but he would have to go back to the detective's office and stay out of sight until the end of his shift. Petitioner stated in his affidavit that he "literally hid in a closet for months." According to petitioner, he felt physically ill at the start of his shift and was shunned by his colleagues. When he entered a room, the other troopers would leave. According to petitioner, he received telephone calls from other troopers he knew who told him that rumors were "spreading like wild fire."
At another time, following his altercation with the squad sergeant, petitioner attended in-service training with 100 other troopers. The speaker gave a lecture on troopers involved in domestic violence, using petitioner's pending case as an example. The troopers in the room laughed and shook their heads. He overheard other troopers say that his case had also been used as an example on other days when they attended the lecture. Petitioner gained 100 pounds and became increasingly introverted and depressed, until he could no longer perform his duties.
Petitioner was referred by a State Police physician to the Environmental and Occupational Health Services Institute (EOHSI) to be evaluated for fitness for duty. He was tested on June 4, 2002. In a report, the EOHSI found in part that petitioner has been off duty on stress leave since May 2001 due to depression and anxiety he attributes to a hostile work environment. [Petitioner] meets DSM-IV criteria for current diagnoses of Major Depressive Disorder and Social Phobia. He also meets criteria for the provisional diagnosis of Binge Eating Disorder. Personality testing reveals paranoid ideation of delusional proportions, social alienation depression, and anxiety.
In a report dated June 27, 2002, petitioner's psychiatrist, Dr. Samuel Schneider, also diagnosed petitioner with "Major Depressive Disorder as well as features of a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder" and ...