On appeal from a Final Notice of Administrative Action, Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System, PFRS #3-10-031600, TYP-780-2005S.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges S.L. Reisner and C.L. Miniman.
This is an appeal by petitioner-appellant Sergeant Lewis M. Dutton (Dutton), New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC), from a determination by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) that was adopted by the Board of Trustees (the Board), Police & Firemen's Retirement System (the PFRS), as a final agency action. Both the ALJ and the Board concluded that Dutton's injury was not "accidental" within the meaning of the accidental disability pension under the PFRS and that he was entitled only to an ordinary disability pension. Specifically, the ALJ and the Board found that Dutton's permanent and total disability was not a direct result of a "traumatic event" that would trigger an accidental disability pension. N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(1). We reverse.
On December 30, 2003, Dutton was in his sergeant's office on Housing Unit 21 Left at South Woods State Prison. Also working on the unit was Senior Corrections Officer John Beverly (Beverly). Dutton supervised and was responsible for the safety of Beverly. An inmate approached Beverly sitting at the podium in the hallway of the unit and punched him in the face and chest. From his office Dutton observed a physical altercation between Beverly and the inmate. When he first observed them, they were in a "fighting stance." Then, the inmate tackled Beverly, knocking him to the floor, and punched him in the chest. Dutton punched the "duress button" and ran to assist Beverly.
When he arrived at the fight scene, Dutton dove on top of the inmate, who had been punching and slamming Beverly onto the concrete floor. Dutton attempted to use his OC spray,*fn1 but only sprayed the inmate's hand and the top of his head. The spray can was then knocked out of Dutton's hand.
Eventually, Dutton broke the inmate's grasp on Beverly, who moved out from the bottom of the pile. The inmate rolled Dutton on his back, but Dutton continued to hold onto him from behind. The inmate then "pushed back," slamming Dutton into the metal podium three to five times. Then, four to five other officers responded to the scene, and the inmate was eventually restrained and removed from the area.
Dutton suffered an injury to his back severe enough to render him permanently and totally disabled. Dutton retired effective October 1, 2004, and sought an accidental disability pension. His application was denied and his appeal was transferred to the OAL for a hearing.
Dutton testified that sergeants in the DOC carry no self-defense weapons. They only have OC spray. He also testified that forty-five to fifty percent of the inmates at South Woods are violent and it is not uncommon for corrections officers to intervene in fights between inmates. However, attacks on corrections officers are rare.
Beverly testified that he knew the inmate was agitated, but he did not expect to be assaulted. He also said that he had assisted in pacifying fights between inmates, but had never been attacked before. Beverly also testified that corrections officers receive information on self-defense and opined that physical confrontations are "part of the job."
It was undisputed that Dutton was permanently and totally disabled, that he was injured as a result of an event that occurred during the performance of his regular duties, that his disability was not the result of his own willful negligence, and that he was incapacitated for the performance of his duties or any other available duty in the DOC. Thus, the only issue before the ALJ, the Board, and us is whether Dutton was disabled as a direct result of a "traumatic event."
Both the ALJ and the Board concluded that there was no "traumatic event" as that term has been interpreted and applied in Supreme Court cases and in unpublished Appellate Division decisions. The facts at the hearing were undisputed and the ALJ found the testimony of all the witnesses to be credible. Thus, the only issue on appeal is the interpretation of applicable law and its application to the largely undisputed facts as found by the ALJ.
[W]e note that administrative agencies have broad discretion to adjudicate disputes. Appellate courts must defer to an agency's expertise and superior knowledge of a particular field. Thus, if substantial credible evidence supports an agency's conclusion, a court may not substitute its own judgment for the agency's even though the court might have reached a different result. Agencies, however, have no superior ability to resolve purely legal questions, and that a court is not bound by an agency's ...