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Richardson v. Board of Trustees

July 24, 2007

STEWART A. RICHARDSON, PETITIONER-APPELLANT,
v.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES, POLICE AND FIREMEN'S RETIREMENT SYSTEM, RESPONDENT-RESPONDENT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

The issue in this appeal concerns the "traumatic event" standard under the accidental disability retirement provisions of statutes such as the Police and Firemen's Retirement System (PFRS), N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7.

Stewart Richardson worked as a Corrections Officer for South Woods State Prison. On January 7, 2003, an inmate violently resisted being handcuffed. The officers on the scene sent an emergency signal. Richardson and a colleague responded, and the officers wrestled the inmate to the ground on his stomach. Richardson straddled the inmate to hold him down, but the inmate continued to violently struggle. As Richardson reached for handcuffs, the inmate forcefully jerked up from the ground, knocking Richardson backward. The force caused Richardson to fall back onto his left hand and hyperextend his wrist, completely tearing the ligament. Corrective surgery was unsuccessful. Physicians advised Richardson that he could return to only light duty work.

Richardson applied for accidental disability retirement benefits with the PFRS Board of Trustees (Board). The Board awarded only ordinary disability retirement. The Board found that Richardson was permanently disabled as a direct result of the January incident, but that he did not suffer a traumatic event as required by the statute. Richardson appealed, and a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Witnesses testified that responding to an inmate's violent resistance is not part of a corrections officer's normal duties. Nonetheless, the ALJ found that the incident was part of a corrections officer's ordinary duties and, thus, was not a traumatic event. The Board adopted that decision. Richardson appealed to the Appellate Division. The panel affirmed, adding that in its view, Richardson's injury did not satisfy the "great-rush-of-force" prong of the traumatic event standard.

The Supreme Court granted Richardson's petition for certification. The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Long

Argued October 10, 2006

On this appeal, we revisit the traumatic event standard under the accidental disability retirement provision of the Police & Firemen's Retirement System (PFRS), N.J.S.A. 43:16A-1 to 68.*fn1 Under our current case law, to qualify as disabled by a "traumatic event" a member must prove: (a) that his injuries were not induced by the stress or strain of the normal work effort; (b) that he met involuntarily with the object or matter that was the source of the harm; and (c) that the source of the injury itself was "a great rush of force or uncontrollable power." Kane v. Bd. of Trs., Police & Firemen's Ret. Sys., 100 N.J. 651, 663 (1985).

Application of that standard has resulted in confusion and created a body of law with no rational core, thereby compelling this re-evaluation. We recognize that an injury generated by a great rush of force is one example that will satisfy the traumatic event standard, but not the only example. Rather, the traumatic event standard will also be met by a work-connected event that is: (a) identifiable as to time and place; (b) undesigned and unexpected; and (c) caused by a circumstance external to the member (not the result of pre-existing disease that is aggravated or accelerated by the work). By that paradigm shift, we return to what we believe the Legislature intended in adopting the language of N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7 --- to excise disabilities that result from pre-existing disease alone or in combination with work effort from the sweep of the accidental disability statutes and to continue to allow recovery for the kinds of unexpected injurious events that had long been called "accidents." In so doing, we also provide decision makers with a standard capable of consistent and uniform application.

I.

In January 2003, Stewart Richardson was employed as a corrections officer for the South Woods State Prison in Cumberland County. On January 7, an inmate violently resisted being handcuffed. The two officers at the scene sent an emergency signal to which Richardson and a colleague responded. The officers attempted to subdue the inmate so they could handcuff him behind his back. They succeeded in wrestling the inmate to the ground on his stomach and contained his arms under his chest. Richardson straddled the inmate to hold him down, but the inmate continued to struggle by kicking, punching, and throwing his body around. A colleague attempted to hand Richardson his handcuffs. As Richardson was reaching for the handcuffs, the inmate pulled his arm loose and forcefully jerked up from the ground, knocking Richardson backward. The force caused Richardson to fall back onto his left hand and hyper-extend his wrist.

For approximately one month, Richardson was treated for a sprain until an MRI revealed a complete tear of the ligament. Surgery to repair the ligament was unsuccessful. Richardson's physicians advised him that he could return to work but only on light duty.

In September 2003, Richardson filed an application for accidental disability retirement benefits with the Board of Trustees, PFRS (Board). The Board awarded Richardson an ordinary disability retirement.*fn2 Although it found that he was permanently disabled and that his disability was the direct result of the January incident, the Board determined that Richardson did not suffer a traumatic event as required by the statute.

Richardson appealed, and a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Several corrections officers testified about the incident and described it as we have above. Two witnesses testified concerning the issue of whether such violent resistance is a part of the normal course of a corrections officer's duties. Both attested that it was not.

Nonetheless, the ALJ determined that the January incident did not constitute a traumatic event, because Richardson's response was part of the ordinary duties of a corrections officer. The Board adopted that decision. Richardson appealed, and the Appellate Division affirmed, adding that, in its view, Richardson's injury also did not satisfy the great-rush-of-force prong of the traumatic event standard.

We granted Richardson's petition for certification, 186 N.J. 364 (2006), and now reverse.

II.

The essential bone of contention between Richardson and the Board is whether the incident in question was a traumatic event under N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(1). More particularly, the parties disagree over whether Richardson's injuries were caused by a great rush of force or uncontrollable power, as required by the third prong of Kane. The Board also argues that the incident was a normal part of Richardson's job as a corrections officer and thus could not be a traumatic event under Kane's first prong. Richardson disagrees, contending that such violent resistance is not part of the stress and strain of a corrections officer's normal work effort.

III.

To qualify for accidental disability benefits a member must present a certification from the medical board that he 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 disability was not the result of the member's willful negligence 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. [N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(1).]

Thus, the member must be permanently and totally disabled, mentally or physically, from performing his own or any other available job. That is an extraordinarily high threshold that culls out all minor injuries; all major injuries that have fully resolved; all partial or temporary disabilities; and all cases in which a member can continue to work in some other capacity. In addition, the injury must occur during and as a result of the member's performance of his job duties, thus eliminating disabilities that are sustained outside of work. Further, the disability cannot be the result of the member's "willful negligence." That is, the member cannot, by action or inaction, have brought about his disability through his reckless indifference to safety.*fn3

Those stringent standards carefully circumscribe accidental disability benefits and are relatively straightforward. The final requirement, which is one of causation, is that the disability be a "direct result of a traumatic event." It is the meaning of that language that is at issue here.

IV.

In interpreting a statute, our overriding goal is to give effect to the Legislature's intent. DiProspero v. Penn, 183 N.J. 477, 492 (2005). "[T]he best indicator of that intent is the statutory language," thus it is the first place we look. Ibid. (citation omitted). If the plain language leads to a clear and unambiguous result, then our interpretive process is over. Ibid. Only if there is ambiguity in the statutory language will we turn to extrinsic evidence. Ibid. When such evidence is needed, we look to a variety of sources. Central among them is a statute's legislative history. Id. at 492-93.

Generally, courts afford substantial deference to an agency's interpretation of a statute that the agency is charged with enforcing. R & R Mktg., L.L.C. v. Brown-Forman Corp., 158 N.J. 170, 175 (1999) (quoting Smith v. Dir., Div. of Taxation, 108 N.J. 19, 25 (1987)). An appellate court, however, is "in no way bound by the agency's interpretation of a statute or its determination of a strictly legal issue." In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644, 658 (1999) (quoting Mayflower Sec. Co. v. Bureau of Sec., 64 N.J. 85, 93 (1973)).

Our courts have continuously struggled over the meaning of "direct result of a traumatic event" because that language is susceptible to more than one interpretation. See Kane, supra, 100 N.J. at 663; Cattani v. Bd. of Trs., Police & Firemen's Ret. Sys., 69 N.J. 578, 585-86 (1976); Russo v. Teachers' Pension & Annuity Fund, 62 N.J. 142, 154 (1973). Because the plain meaning of the term is ambiguous, we turn to the statute's history.

V.

As originally enacted, the accidental disability statutes and the Workers' Compensation Act contained similar language, requiring personal injuries caused by an "accident arising out of and in the course of [the] employment." Gerba v. Bd. of Trs., Pub. Employees' Ret. Sys., 83 N.J. 174, 181 (1980); compare L. 1954, c. 84 §43 (PERS), with N.J.S.A. 34:15-1 (Workers' Compensation Act).*fn4 Given the similarities between the statutes, "in the early applications of the accidental disability provisions of PERS, the courts were influenced strongly by developments in the workers' compensation field." Gerba, supra, 83 N.J. at 181.

Thus, for nearly a century the cases decided under both statutes defined "accident" in accordance with its ordinary meaning -- as "an unlooked for mishap or untoward event which is not expected or designed." Williams v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J., 175 N.J. 82, 88 (2003); Ciuba v. Irvington Varnish & Insulator Co., 27 N.J. 127, 134 (1958); Spindler v. Universal Chain Corp., 11 N.J. 34, 38 (1952); Bollinger v. Wagaraw Bldg. Supply Co., 122 N.J.L. 512, 519 (E. & A. 1939); Bryant v. Fissell, 84 N.J.L. 72, 76 (Sup. Ct. 1913). Indeed, historically there was no controversy over the import of the word accident. Within its contemplation were everyday mishaps, including trips, falls, and motor vehicle collisions.

Problems began to arise, however, with the meaning of accident in the workers' compensation context. Employees sought to shoehorn heart attacks into the definition of accident in order to qualify for workers' compensation benefits. Initially, workers' compensation precedent placed barriers to such recovery. It was presumed that a heart attack at work resulted from an employee's pre-existing condition and therefore was not a compensable accident. Mergel v. N.J. Conveyors Corp., 14 N.J. 609, 613 (1954); Lohndorf v. Peper Bros. Paint Co., 134 N.J.L. 156, 159 (Sup. Ct. 1946) aff'd o.b. 135 N.J.L. 352 (E & A 1947).

The employee bore the burden of overcoming that presumption by proving that the heart attack was the result of a workplace accident -- that is, that an unexpected mishap other than ordinary work effort caused the attack. Mergel, supra, 14 N.J. at 613.

However, we abandoned those limitations on workers' compensation recovery in Ciuba and Dwyer v. Ford Motor Co., 36 N.J. 487 (1962), superceded in part by statute, Act of Jan. 10, 1980, L. 1979, c. 283, ยง3. Specifically in Dwyer, we rejected the presumption that a heart attack is the result of a pre-existing condition. Dwyer, supra, 36 N.J. at 512. Moreover, we held that heart attacks precipitated by the ...


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