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Patterson v. Board of Trustees

March 11, 2008

ROBERT PATTERSON, PETITIONER-RESPONDENT,
v.
(A-99-05) BOARD OF TRUSTEES, STATE POLICE RETIREMENT SYSTEM, RESPONDENT-APPELLANT.
GLYNN MOORE, PETITIONER-APPELLANT,
v.
(A-101-05) BOARD OF TRUSTEES, STATE POLICE RETIREMENT SYSTEM, RESPONDENT-RESPONDENT.
JOSEPH GUADAGNO, PETITIONER-APPELLANT,
v.
(A-123-05) BOARD OF TRUSTEES, POLICE AND FIREMEN'S RETIREMENT SYSTEM, RESPONDENT-RESPONDENT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 382 N.J. Super. 366 (2006). (Patterson v. Board of Trustees, State Police Retirement System) On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 382 N.J. Super. 347 (2006). (Moore v. Board of Trustees, State Police Retirement System) On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division. (Guadagno v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System)

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 Court considers whether an applicant who suffered a permanent mental disability as a result of a mental stressor without any physical impact, described by the Court as a mental-mental injury, can meet the traumatic-event standard for the purposes of accidental disability retirement under the State Police Retirement System (SPRS) or the Police and Firemen's Retirement System (PFRS), the provisions of which are substantially similar.

In Richardson v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System, 192 N.J. 189 (2007), the Court considered the statutory requirement that a member's disability must be the direct result of a traumatic event to qualify for accidental disability retirement. The Court rejected a line of cases interpreting the term traumatic event to require that the member's injury be caused by a great rush of force or uncontrollable power. Instead, the Court held that the member must show, in part, that the disability was the direct result of an event that was identifiable as to time and place, undesigned and unexpected, and caused by a circumstance external to the member. Here, the Court considers the applicability of the Richardson decision, which involved a physical injury to the member, to three separate appeals by members who suffered mental-mental disabilities and were denied accidental disability retirement on grounds that the disability was not caused by a traumatic event.

In the first matter, Patterson v. Board of Trustees, State Police Retirement System, Patterson claimed persistent verbal abuse by his sergeant that caused him to fear physical violence. The Board found him permanently and totally disabled, but denied accidental disability benefits on grounds that the disability was not caused by a traumatic event. An Administrative Law Judge disagreed, finding that the traumatic-event standard was met as to the initial abuse event, but the Board declined to adopt that determination. Patterson appealed and the Appellate Division reversed. 382 N.J. Super. 366 (App. Div. 2006).

In the second matter, Moore v. Board of Trustees, State Police Retirement System, Moore was subjected to racially-motivated abuse by fellow State Police officers. In the 1990s, Moore also received death threats and threats of retaliation when he refused a request by his lieutenant to convince a friend to withdraw a lawsuit in which he alleged that his traffic stop and search was the result of racial profiling. He also witnessed in 1988 a fellow officer brutally beat an African-American woman who was being arrested. Based on his severe anxiety and emotional problems, Moore was found permanently and totally disabled. The Board rejected his request for accidental disability retirement, however, for failing to meeting the traumatic-event standard. The Board also stated that an application for accidental disability must be filed within five years of the original traumatic event and found no evidence that Moore filed in a timely fashion or that he had an excuse for the late filing. An Administrative Law Judge agreed with the Board that the incidents were not traumatic events but did not reach the issue of timeliness. The Board adopted the determination. The Appellate Division affirmed. 382 N.J. Super. 347 (App. Div. 2006).

In the third matter, Guadagno v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System, Guadagno asserted that in 2002, during his employment as a corrections officer, an inmate threatened to kill him, his wife and his daughter. The inmate demonstrated personal knowledge of Guadagno's family and claimed an ability to carry out the threats either personally or through his gang. Guadagno suffered panic attacks and began drinking. The Board found Guadagno permanently disabled, but rejected his application for accidental disability retirement on grounds that the disability was not the result of a traumatic event. An Administrative Law Judge disagreed with that determination. The Board rejected the ALJ's recommendation and concluded that threats by an inmate confined to a cell could not constitute a traumatic event. The Appellate Division affirmed over a dissent.

HELD: A member of the State Police Retirement System or the Police and Firemen's Retirement System who suffers from a permanent and total mental disability as a result of a mental stressor, without any physical impact, is entitled to accidental disability retirement if the disability was the direct result of a mental stressor that was identifiable as to time and place, that was undesigned and unexpected, that was external to the member (not the result of a pre-existing disease aggravated or accelerated by the work), that occurred during and as a result of the member's duties, and that was not the result of the member's willful negligence. Additionally, the disability must result from direct personal experience of a terrifying or horror-inducing event that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a similarly serious threat to the physical integrity of the member or another person.

1. Although post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was initially associated with combat experiences, it has become a serious public health problem in the general population due to the surprisingly high prevalence of assault, rape, child abuse, disaster and severe accidental and violent trauma in the civilian arena. In the United States, the lifetime prevalence for PTSD is approximately eight percent of the adult population. (Pp. 13-15).

2. Accidental disability retirement entitles a member to receive a higher level of benefits than ordinary disability retirement. A permanently disabled member of the SPRS or PFRS qualifies for ordinary disability retirement whether or not there is a work connection. To be eligible for accidental disability retirement under Richardson, however, a member must show (1) that he or she is permanently and totally disabled; (2) the disability was the direct result of a traumatic event that is identifiable as to time and place, undesigned and unexpected, and caused by a circumstance external to the member (not the result of pre-existing disease that is aggravated or accelerated by the work); (3) the traumatic event occurred during and as a result of the member's regular or assigned duties; (4) the disability was not the result of the member's willful negligence; and (5) the member is mentally or physically incapacitated from performing his or her usual or any other duty. (Pp. 15-18).

3. The pension statutes expressly extend eligibility to individuals with disabling mental injuries. However, neither the statutes nor their legislative history expressly address whether a mental injury will be recognized as a basis for accidental disability if it was caused by an exclusively psychological trauma. The Court takes guidance, however, from N.J.S.A. 40A:14-195 to -198, a statute that provides for post-traumatic debriefing and counseling services for certain law enforcement officers. The statute specifically uses the term post-trauma stress disorder and lists examples of incidents that may dictate counseling, some of which do not involve physical impact. The Court also takes guidance from the field of tort law, which recognizes emotional distress claims as a result of injury without physical impact, and the field of workers' compensation law, in which it has been recognized that psychological stressors causing mental injuries may be categorized as accidental. (Pp. 18-23).

4. In general, permanent mental injury caused by a mental stressor without any physical impact can satisfy the Richardson standard. A psychological trauma is no less external than a physical one, and physical force is not a requirement under the statute. So long as the fundamentals of Richardson are met, the accidental disability statutes will recognize the mental-mental category of injuries. That means that a permanently disabling mental injury, that is the direct result of a mental stressor that is identifiable as to time and place, undesigned and unexpected, external to the member (not the result of pre-existing disease that is aggravated or accelerated by the work), that occurred during and as a result of the member's duties and was not the result of the member's willful negligence, can qualify the member for an accidental disability retirement benefit. (Pp. 23-24).

5. In its discussion of PTSD, the DSM-IV-TR recognizes a causal relationship between certain delineated traumatic events and a resultant mental disorder. The diagnostic criteria for PTSD requires that the affected person experienced, witnessed or was confronted with an event that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or other, and that the person's response involved intense fear, helplessness or horror. In enacting N.J.S.A. 40A:14-196, describing events potentially experienced by law enforcement officers that might result in a mental injury and a need for counseling, the Legislature adopted the approach set forth in the DSM, and the Court does the same with respect to all public employee accidental disability statutes. (Pp. 25-26).

6. In sum, to obtain accidental disability benefits for a mental injury precipitated by an exclusively mental stressor, a member must satisfy the Richardson standards and, in addition, the disability must result from direct personal experience of a terrifying or horror-inducing event that involves actual or threatened injury or serious injury, or a similarly serious threat to the physical integrity of the member or another person. By the addition of the latter requirements to the Richardson template, the Court requires that the traumatic event be objectively capable of causing a permanent, disabling mental injury to a reasonable person under similar circumstances. (Pp. 26-28).

7. Applying this standard to the matters before the Court, Patterson does not qualify for accidental disability benefits because the conduct of his supervisors did not involve actual or threatened death or serious injury to his physical integrity. (P. 28).

8. Moore's prolonged exposure to a racially-hostile environment cannot sustain characterization as a traumatic event. With regard to the 1988 beating of the African-American woman, the Court notes the problem of Moore's delay in filing based on this event, and states further that as a matter of public policy a police officer who observes an officer beating a citizen without interfering or reporting the incident up the chain of command to the highest levels of authority cannot rely on the incident as a predicate for an enhanced public pension. With regard to the death threats made nine or ten years before Moore filed his claim, these are subject to the five-year statute of limitations applicable to state police pensions and to proof that Moore's mental disability was a direct result of them. Moore was prepared, however, to present at the bifurcated proceeding before the Administrative Law Judge two physicians who intended to testify regarding the issue of delayed manifestation. That testimony was not reached because of the ALJ's traumatic-event ruling. Because that testimony continues to bear on the statute of limitations and on the causation question whether Moore's condition was a direct result of the claimed incident, the matter must be returned to the Board so that Moore can present his proofs. He also must demonstrate that the threats he received qualify as a traumatic event under the standard articulated by the Court in this opinion. (Pp. 28-29).

9. In Guadagno, given the standard enunciated by the Court, the credible threat of rape and murder against Guadagno's wife and daughter by a presumed gang member who knew where Guadagno lived and worked could satisfy the traumatic-event element of the statute. The Court therefore reverses and remands the matter to the Board for reconsideration of that issue. (Pp. 29-31).

The judgment of the Appellate Division in Patterson is REVERSED and the order of the Board is REINSTATED. The judgments of the Appellate Division in Moore and Guadagno are REVERSED and the matters are REMANDED to the Board for proceedings in accordance with this opinion.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, WALLACE, RIVERA-SOTO and HOENS join in JUSTICE LONG's opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Long

Argued October 10, 2006

Re-argued November 28, 2007

Once again we are called upon to address the "traumatic event" standard under the accidental disability retirement provisions of the State Police Retirement System (SPRS), N.J.S.A. 53:5A-1 to -47, and the Police and Firemen's Retirement System (PFRS), N.J.S.A. 43:16A-1 to -68. In particular, we have been asked to determine whether an applicant who has suffered a permanent mental disability as a result of a mental stressor, without any physical impact, can be considered to have experienced a "traumatic event" and, if so, what standard should apply in assessing such a claim.

We conclude that the accidental disability statutes permit such a permanent mental injury to qualify a member for an accidental disability retirement. Like other accidental disability claimants, a member suffering from a so-called mental-mental injury must satisfy the standards we recently enunciated in Richardson v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System, 192 N.J. 189 (2007), namely

1. that he is permanently and totally disabled;

2. as a direct result of a traumatic 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);

3. that the traumatic event occurred during and as a result of the member's regular or assigned duties;

4. that the disability was not the result of the member's willful negligence; and

5. that the member is mentally or physically incapacitated from performing his usual or any other duty. [Id. at 212-13.]

In addition, to carry out the legislative intent and to align the pension law with developments in other areas regarding post-traumatic mental injury, we add a requirement beyond those set forth in Richardson: The disability must result from direct personal experience of a terrifying or horror-inducing event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a similarly serious threat to the physical integrity of the member or another person. By that addition, we achieve the important assurance that the traumatic event posited as the basis for an accidental disability pension is not inconsequential but is objectively capable of causing a reasonable person in similar circumstances to suffer a disabling mental injury.

I.

Patterson v. Bd. of Trs., State Police Ret. Sys. Robert Patterson became a New Jersey State Police Officer in November 1987, at which time he was enrolled in the SPRS. Patterson was charged with a domestic violence offense for allegedly breaking his girlfriend's nose. As a result, he was prohibited from carrying a weapon and was reassigned to the Hightstown station, in 1998. According to an affidavit Patterson presented at his pension hearing, the day that he first reported to his new assignment, February 1, 1998, a sergeant called a meeting at which he introduced Patterson to other officers in the following manner:

This is Bob Patterson, he's a Fat F**k, a piece of sh*t rat, he will drag you down, Don'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 sergeant also told him to "get the f**k out." After Patterson returned to the radio room in which he had been working, the sergeant reportedly entered the room and, with clenched fists, ordered Patterson to "[g]o downstairs and get changed you piece of sh*t, I don't want to be in the same building as you." Patterson asserted that at the time he was fearful that if he did not submit, the sergeant would hit him. Patterson also stated that later, when exiting the building, the sergeant again approached him and informed him that "[f]rom now on when my squad relieves you, you are to leave the building." Again, Patterson believed the sergeant would have hit him had he questioned the sergeant's authority.

Patterson stated in his affidavit that as a result he was ostracized by his peers and became depressed and introverted. He also stated that he gained weight, lost interest in trying to better himself, and began to feel physically ill on days he had to work.

In July 2002, Patterson filed an application for an accidental disability retirement. The board determined that Patterson was permanently and totally disabled, awarding ordinary disability benefits and denying his application for accidental disability benefits. The board determined that, although Patterson's disability resulted directly ...


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