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Class v. Board of Trustees

June 18, 2007

IN THE MATTER OF JUAN CLASS, APPELLANT,
v.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES, POLICE AND FIREMEN'S RETIREMENT SYSTEM, RESPONDENT.



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

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

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 ...


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