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Class v. Board of Trustees


June 18, 2007


On appeal from the Final Decision of the Board of Trustees of the Police and Firemen's Retirement System, TYP-2121-05.

Per curiam.


Argued January 24, 2007

Before Judges A. A. Rodríguez and Lyons.

Appellant, Juan Class, appeals from the final administrative action of the Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System ("Board") that denied him accidental disability retirement benefits. He sustained the serious and permanent injuries that serve as the basis for his claim during an altercation with an inmate while serving as a corrections officer. However, the Board found appellant to be permanently disabled and awarded him ordinary disability retirement benefits. It found that the injuries did not result from a "traumatic event" as required by N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(1), and denied appellant accidental disability retirement benefits. We reverse.

Following the initial denial of his application by the Board, appellant requested a hearing and the matter was transmitted to the Office of Administrative Law ("OAL") as a contested case. The parties stipulated that appellant was permanently and totally disabled as a direct result of the incident which occurred during the performance of his assigned duties. See N.J.S.A. 43:16A-6. The disposition of the case, therefore, turned on whether the incident was a "traumatic event" as required by N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7. Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Douglas H. Hurd, conducted a hearing on August 23, 2005, at which only appellant testified.

The facts produced at the hearing were either stipulated or uncontradicted. Appellant was employed as a senior corrections officer at the Garden State Reception and Youth Correction Facility and was enrolled in the Policemen and Firemen's Retirement System, ("PFRS"). On May 5, 2003, appellant was injured during an incident that occurred at approximately 7:00 a.m. while he, and a fellow officer, Wanda Rodriguez ("Officer Rodriguez"), were responsible for monitoring inmates going to breakfast. Officer Rodriguez was responsible for opening the gate and letting five inmates into the sitting area at a time. Appellant was responsible for monitoring the mess line and backing up Officer Rodriguez.

During the process, one inmate, named Berroa, told Officer Rodriguez that he needed to see a doctor. Officer Rodriguez conveyed to appellant that the inmate needed to see a doctor and instructed appellant to call the hospital. Appellant acknowledged the instruction and saw inmate Berroa start to walk away. Appellant then witnessed the inmate suddenly turn around and repeatedly punch Officer Rodriguez. As inmate Berroa started punching Officer Rodriguez, appellant observed that she dropped the keys to all the units in the facility.

Appellant reacted by lifting the emergency telephone off the hook to signal other officers. Appellant then opened the gate and went to the aid of Officer Rodriguez. Appellant testified:

I pulled Officer Rodriguez away from the inmate, at which time, the inmate turned to me and came to me and grabbed my shoulders.

I grabbed him around the waist. We started struggling. There was a lot of resistance from the inmate. He was struggling until we fell on the floor. Once we were on the floor, I was able to gain control of him and turn him over, and get his hands behind his back. He was still struggling very hard.

Eventually, appellant, assisted by Officer Rodriguez and other responding officers, subdued inmate Berroa and handcuffed him. The entire incident lasted between two and five minutes. At some point during the altercation, appellant injured his lower back. Immediately after the incident, he was transported to the prison hospital and then to Robert Wood Johnson Hospital.

Appellant testified:

I never encountered anybody with so much resistance. Normally once you go to restrain the inmate, they get very passive. There is very minimal resistance . . .

[t]his particular inmate, he was out of control. I never had an inmate resist that bad where we actually had a physical struggle to take control of the inmate . . .

I didn't give him time to punch me because I was supporting Rodriguez, he came to me, I went for his waist . . . [a]fter I pulled him off Rodriguez, he came. As he came, and he grabbed, I grabbed at the same time.

After May 5, 2003, appellant was unable to work and eventually underwent a lumbar fusion. Appellant filed an application for accidental disability retirement benefits. The Board found appellant to be totally and permanently disabled as a result of the incident, but concluded that the incident was not a "traumatic event" as required by N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7 and defined by caselaw. The matter proceeded to the OAL, the ALJ finding that the incident was indeed a "traumatic event" based upon the description of the accident as presented. The Board reviewed and voted to reject the ALJ's determination, concluding that the incident of May 5, 2003 was not a "traumatic event." The Board found that the incident was induced by the stress and strain of the normal work effort and that the injury was not caused by a great rush of force or uncontrollable power. It found the incident to be a "scuffle" rather than a "traumatic event." This appeal ensued.

In Fairweather v. Emp. Ret. Sys., Judge Axelrad set forth the degree of deference to be afforded an administrative agency in such situations, and the scope of our review as follows:

We are mindful of the deference afforded an administrative agency and our limited role in reviewing its decisions, intervening only in rare circumstances where the agency action is arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable or not supported by the evidence in the record. See, e.g., Merin v. Maglaki, 126 N.J. 430, 436-37 (1992); Campbell v. Dep't. of Civil Serv., 39 N.J. 556, 562 (1963). We are also aware that in amending the statute in 1966 to require that an injury be a direct result of a traumatic event instead of it being proximately caused by an accident consonant with workers' compensation precedent, the [L]egislature intended to limit the grant of accidental disability benefits. See Kane v. Bd. of Trs., 100 N.J. 651, 661 (1985); Cattani v. Bd. of Trs. 69 N.J. 578, 584 (1976) and Russo v. Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund, 62 N.J. 142, 150-51 (1973). This is so because accidental disability pension benefits provide for just over 66% of the member's salary to be paid for life, regardless of [his or her] age, service time, or contributions made to the retirement system. N.J.S.A. 43:15A-46. By contrast, ordinary disability retirement benefits provide 43.6% of the member's final average salary and require that a member have at least ten years of New Jersey service. N.J.S.A. 43:15A-45.

Our review of the Board's denial of accidental disability pension benefits to petitioner, however, is not simply a pro forma exercise in which [we] rubber stamp findings that are not reasonably supported by the evidence. Chou v. Rutgers, 283 N.J. Super. 524, 539 (App. Div. 1995), certif. denied, 145 N.J. 374 (1996). In the interest of justice we abandon our traditional deference to agency decisions when an agency's decision is manifestly mistaken. See Outland v. Bd. of Trs. of Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund, 326 N.J. Super. 395, 400 (App. Div. 1999)(citing P.F. v. Div. of Dev. Disab., 139 N.J. 522, 530 (1995)). Moreover, although we respect the agency's expertise, ultimately, interpretation of statutes is a judicial, not an administrative, function and we are in no way bound by the agency's interpretation. Mayflower Secs. Co. v. Bureau of Secs., 64 N.J. 85, 93 (1973). [373 N.J. Super. 288, 294-95 (App. Div. 2004).]

The issue of inmate violence toward a corrections officer and what constitutes a "traumatic event" for entitlement to accidental disability retirement benefits has been reviewed by the courts in the past. An analysis of the relevant decisions dealing with this topic reveals no bright line test, thus, a fact-sensitive analysis of each case against existing caselaw is required.

While not dealing with an assault against a corrections officer by an inmate, but rather a fireman injured in the line of duty, the Court in Cattani noted, "the phrase 'traumatic event' would ordinarily involve a mishap or accident involving the application of some kind of external force to the body or the violent exposure of the body to some external force." 69 N.J. at 586.

The seminal case concerning police officers and traumatic events is Kane. In that case, the Court reviewed the applications of three police officers for accidental disability retirement allowances. While none of the incidents in that case involved violence against an officer, the Court set forth its test for a petitioner to be eligible for accidental disability retirement allowances. The Court stated that a petitioner: must demonstrate (1) that [his or her] injuries were not induced by the stress or strain of the normal work effort; (2) that [he or she] met involuntarily with the object or matter that was the source of the harm; and (3) the source of the injury itself was a great rush of force or uncontrollable power.

[Kane, supra, 100 N.J. at 663].

In Ciecwisz v. Bd. of Trs., 113 N.J. 180 (1988), the Court reviewed an application of a corrections officer for accidental disability benefits. In that case, the officer had sustained a fractured left clavicle while breaking up a fight between two inmates in 1979. He later suffered a compressed fracture of a lumbar inverterbrae when he slipped and fell on some cooking oil spilled on the kitchen floor by two inmates in 1981, and injured his back again in 1983 while subduing an inmate who had "flipped out" in his cell. The Board found that the 1983 incident was "traumatic" but that his disability was not the direct result of that incident. Id. at 181. The Court agreed with the Board. The petitioner was not accorded accidental disability benefits because the Board had found the 1981 incident was not a traumatic event and that, although the 1983 incident was traumatic, the petitioner's disability was not the direct result of that incident. The Ciecwisz Court did not take issue with the Board's finding that subduing an inmate who had "flipped out" was a "traumatic event."

In 1989, the Court addressed two applications for accidental disability benefits from former corrections officers who had filed claims stemming from injuries sustained in altercations involving inmates. Gable v. Bd. of Trs., 115 N.J. 212 (1989). The first officer alleged physical confrontations on three occasions with violent, unruly inmates. The first incident involved an inmate who threw powder in the petitioner's face and then, when the inmate was coming toward petitioner swinging a chair, petitioner rammed his shoulder into the inmate's mid-section while the inmate struck the petitioner in the middle of his back with the chair. Id. at 215-16. The second incident occurred when the petitioner was attempting to arouse a drunken prisoner who was sleeping in a holding cell. The prisoner kicked the petitioner in the chest, propelling him against the wall. Id. at 216. The third incident dealt with an inmate trying to escape in the shower. There, the petitioner grabbed the inmate by the head and the inmate put his arm around the petitioner's neck. Ibid.

The second officer alleged that he was traumatically injured when an unruly inmate caused him to be dragged down the steps while he was leading the inmate out of court. Id. at 218.

The Court in Gable applied the standards set forth in Kane. It once again noted that a fact-sensitive inquiry is required in determining what constitutes stress or strain of normal work effort. Id. at 223. The Court disagreed with the Board's characterization of the assaults against the corrections officers as "mere scuffles." Ibid. The Court noted that a petitioner had a heavy wooden chair slammed across his back by an inmate in one incident, and had several individuals pile on top of him after he wrestled an unruly inmate to the floor. The Court analyzed the violent incidents before it and noted that, while a corrections officer's job is dangerous, it is not expected that officers will be struck by an aggressive or an escaping inmate as part of their daily routine. The Court found that by performing their jobs, "corrections officers do not 'voluntarily' assume the risk of being assaulted by an unruly inmate." Id. at 224. Further, the Court pointed out that the involuntary prong of Kane should be read narrowly, for it did not "want corrections officers to shy away from subduing unruly inmates." Ibid. Concluding that "corrections officers are not hired to be 'punching bags'," the Court affirmed the award of accidental disability retirement benefits. Ibid.

In Mazza v. Bd. of Trs., 143 N.J. 22 (1995), the Court found that a park police officer who was injured when his horse reared up and twisted the officer's spine was not entitled to an accidental disability benefit. The Court affirmed "not because no lifting or twisting case can ever be considered traumatic, but because this twisting case was found not to be traumatic by the Pension Trustees because it did not involve a great rush of force or uncontrollable power." Id. at 25. In reviewing the Mazza opinion, we observed that: the accident in Mazza did not involve a completely external force but rather the interaction between a mounted policeman and his horse. Furthermore, the resulting injury involved solely the twisting of the policeman's body, rather than a violent collision with an external, physical object as would have occurred if the policeman had been thrown from his horse and hit his back on a rock. [Flores v. Bd. of Trs., 287 N.J. Super. 274, 279 (App. Div. 1996).]

In Muller v. Bd. of Trs., 316 N.J. Super. 94 (App. Div. 1998), a police officer appealed the denial of his application for accidental disability retirement benefits. The police officer, together with other officers, had been executing a search warrant in a motel room. The officers gave a copy of the warrant to a female suspect. The suspect became very belligerent and refused to sit down while the officers conducted the search. When the suspect continued this conduct for some period of time, the officers told her she was under arrest and directed her to put her hands behind her back, however, the suspect refused. As a result, petitioner reached out to grab her, but she resisted by biting the middle finger of his left hand and locking it in her mouth. Petitioner was unable to extricate his finger from the suspect's grasp, and as he was struggling with her, he twisted his left shoulder. Petitioner then grabbed the suspect's hair and pulled himself away from her. As the petitioner yanked his finger out of the suspect's mouth, he stumbled over debris on the floor and crashed into a nearby wall, severely injuring the same shoulder he had previously twisted while struggling with the suspect. The petitioner alleged that this injury was a traumatic event which entitled him to his accidental disability benefits. Id. at 96.

Our court reviewed the requirements of Gable and Kane, and concluded: a violent assault upon a law enforcement officer may constitute a 'traumatic event' within the intent of N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7, even though the officer's actions in responding to that assault are part of the overall chain of causation ultimately resulting in the disabling injury. Therefore, we conclude that under the proper application of the Kane tests, 'the source of the harm' should be viewed as the suspect's act of violently seizing petitioner's finger with her teeth and that that act constituted 'a great rush of force or uncontrollable power.' [Id. at 99; see also Gable, supra, 115 N.J. at 224-25.]

The Board relies heavily in support of its decision on Crum v. Bd. of Trs., No. A-1375-99T2 (App. Div. Feb. 23, 2001), an unpublished opinion from our court involving a county corrections officer seeking accidental disability benefits.*fn1 In Crum, the petitioner was assisting two officers in restraining an unruly inmate. The petitioner testified that as the prisoner thrashed about, he lifted his one leg and threw the petitioner about a foot against the wall. The ALJ essentially found the petitioner's version not credible because her testimony was not corroborated by any of the reports submitted by her. The ALJ concluded that the petitioner strained her back while she was helping to subdue and shackle the inmate, but that the reports submitted did not state that she was hurt because she was either kicked by the inmate or thrown against the wall. Our court concluded it could not "say that the record was unsupported by sufficient evidence to form the basis for the ALJ's rejection of the petitioner's version of what happened." Id. at 8. Consequently, we affirmed the Board's ruling since "the petitioner failed to establish credible evidence that her injuries came about as a direct result of being kicked or propelled against the wall by the assault of activity on the part of the inmate or a great rush of force or uncontrollable power." Id. at 9-10. The Board's reliance on Crum is misplaced since the central focus of the Crum case dealt with the credibility of the petitioner's version of the incident and the fact that the factual findings did not establish that her injury was the direct result of a violent act of great force.

The Board also relied upon Richardson v. Bd. of Trs., No. A-2811-04T2 (App. Div. Nov. 16, 2005), certif. granted, 186 N.J. 364 (2006). In Richardson, a retired corrections officer appealed the denial of his application for accidental disability benefits from the Board. There the petitioner responded to an emergency code and found two other corrections officers struggling with the inmate. When petitioner jumped on top of the inmate to assist in placing handcuffs on him, he reached under the inmate's right arm. The inmate, however, thrust part of his body upward and caused the petitioner to fall backwards. When the petitioner landed on his left hand, he severed ligaments in his left wrist. Id. at 2-3.

The first issue addressed was the first prong of the Kane analysis, whether what occurred was beyond the stress and strain of a corrections officers' normal work efforts. The ALJ, in his findings of fact and conclusions of law, found that Gable makes a clear distinction between minor "scuffles" that occur regularly in a jail environment and violent physical attacks perpetrated by inmates. Id. at 5-6. While noting that injuries sustained by corrections officers are difficult to decipher as to whether they are ordinary course of events or traumatic events, the ALJ drew attention to whether the officer sustained injuries from an inmate who was "offensive" or "defensive" as understood in a correctional environment. Id. at 7. The ALJ noted that such an analysis requires one to look to factors such as who the aggressor was and whether the actions were "defensive" or "offensive." Id. at 7-8. The ALJ concluded that a traumatic event arises when a corrections officer is violently attacked in an offensive manner during an unprovoked event. Id. at 8.

These conclusions were adopted by us in Richardson. In affirming the denial of accidental benefits, we noted that in Richardson, the inmate did not attack petitioner, rather, when the petitioner arrived on the scene, the inmate was already partially restrained by two other officers lying face down on his stomach with his arms underneath his chest. Id. at 11. We concluded, therefore, that this was not comparable to what occurred in Gable, and, moreover, that the inmate lifting his upper torso, was not a great rush of force. Ibid.

After reviewing the cases cited above, it appears that an assault by an inmate on a corrections officer would be found to be a "traumatic event," where the inmate, unprovoked, initiates an aggressive and violent assault on an officer with such great force or uncontrollable power, as to be the direct cause of an officer's disability in a situation where an officer is acting in the performance of his or her duties. The uncontroverted facts in this case reveal that appellant was injured as the result of external force to his body.

The initial prong under Kane is whether the injuries were induced by the stress or strain of the normal work effort. 100 N.J. at 663. In Gable, the Court found that violent unprovoked offensive assaults by inmates should not be characterized as mere scuffles, nor part of the job of a corrections officer. 115 N.J. at 224-225. The testimony indicates that this incident was not a normal occurrence. Appellant testified that he had never seen so much resistance by an inmate. On the day in question, a corrections officer, without warning or provocation, was hit with fists directly in the face. Keys to all of the facility's units wound up on the floor and inmates were standing around. Something had to be done in this emergent situation. Appellant signaled the alarm by knocking the telephone off the hook, opened the gate for assistance, and then went to rescue his co-employee. None of this is part of a corrections officer's daily routine.

After rescuing Officer Rodriguez, appellant then was grabbed by inmate Berroa, who came after him. There was certainly nothing in the record that indicated that appellant's actions were voluntary within the meaning of the Kane-Gable test. See Ibid. In Gable, the Court noted the involuntary prong should be read narrowly. See 115 N.J. at 224. The Court specifically stated, "we do not want corrections officers to shy away from subduing unruly inmates." Moreover, the Court held that by merely performing a job, corrections officers did not voluntarily assume the risk of being assaulted by an unruly inmate. Ibid.

While the Board relies heavily on Crum for support of its position, the Crum case is not instructive. In Crum, the ALJ found the appellant incredible and that there was a failure by the petitioner to establish by credible evidence that injuries came about as a direct result of being kicked or propelled against the wall by the assault of activity on the part of the inmate. A-1375-99T2 at 4. Consequently, the reliance on Gable, as comparable to the instant case, is misplaced. The reliance on Richardson is also inappropriate. In Richardson, the inmate did not attack the petitioner. Rather, when the petitioner arrived on the scene, the inmate was already partially restrained by two other officers. In this case, after he rescued his co-worker, the inmate came after appellant, according to the record, and grabbed him. The inmate initiated the attack against appellant as he had against Officer Rodriguez. In Richardson, the court concluded that the lifting of the inmate's upper torso was not a great rush of force or uncontrollable power. A-2811-04T2 at 12.

In the instant case, the testimony is clear and uncontradicted that this was an extraordinary amount of resistance. The testimony in the record from appellant was that he had never had an inmate resist as he had in this case. That finding is further supported by the fact that immediately thereafter, appellant was taken to a hospital.

We are satisfied, therefore, that appellant's claim constitutes a traumatic event within the Kane test. As stated in Muller, "a violent assault upon a law enforcement officer may constitute a 'traumatic event' within the intent of N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7, even though the officer's actions in responding to that assault are part of the overall chain of causation ultimately resulting in a disabling injury." 316 N.J. Super. at 99. As in Muller, the source of the harm in the instant case should be viewed as the suspect's violent attack on appellant, and that act, according to the uncontroverted testimony, constituted a great rush of force or uncontrollable power.

Accordingly, we find the Board improperly interpreted whether this incident constituted a "traumatic event." This was an extraordinary day for appellant, one where he went to the aid of his fellow officer and became the victim of an unprovoked, aggressive and violent assault that rendered him unable to continue performing his duties. We therefore reverse and remand to the Board for the entry of a decision granting accidental disability benefits to appellant.

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