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In re Tiefenbacher

October 9, 2009

IN THE MATTER OF THOMAS B. TIEFENBACHER.


On appeal from the Board of Trustees of the Public Employees' Retirement System, Department of the Treasury.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued September 21, 2009

Before Judges Reisner and Chambers.

Applicant Thomas B. Tiefenbacher appeals from the final decision of the Board of Trustees (Board) of the Public Employees' Retirement System (PERS) denying his application for accidental disability retirement benefits. We affirm, concluding that the record is sufficient to support the Board's finding that Tiefenbacher does not qualify for accidental disability retirement benefits.

I.

Tiefenbacher's claim for accidental disability benefits arises from an injury to his foot that occurred in the courthouse where he worked as the Passaic County Deputy Surrogate. At the administrative hearing, Tiefenbacher testified that in accordance with his usual routine, he reported to work early on June 5, 2003. After opening the office, he went down to the courthouse cafeteria for some food to take with his medication. On the way back to his office, while walking up the stairway, he stepped on a piece of metal that punctured his foot. He estimated this took place at about 7:40 a.m. When he arrived back at his office, he went to sleep at his desk and was not awakened until the end of the day at 4:00 p.m. Once he arrived home, he collapsed and was taken to the hospital.

Tiefenbacher was hospitalized, and his final diagnosis was cellulitis of the lower extremity, sepsis, and venous insufficiency. The record indicates that Tiefenbacher had numerous pre-existing health problems, including diabetes and hypertension; he had suffered a myocardial infarction and underwent coronary artery bypass surgery in 1996; and in 2001 he had a carotid endarterectomy. The parties dispute whether Tiefenbacher had pre-existing ulcers on his feet. Although Tiefenbacher returned to work, he lost his job at the end of 2003. He contends that the puncturing of his foot caused the sepsis which in turn triggered a cascade of medical problems, aggravating his pre-existing medical conditions, and led to his disability.

Tiefenbacher thereafter applied for accidental disability retirement benefits. In order to qualify for accidental disability retirement benefits, the applicant must have become "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." N.J.S.A. 43:15A-43.

The Board, by letter dated September 21, 2006, found that Tiefenbacher was disabled and unable to perform his regular or assigned duties, and as result, concluded that he was entitled to ordinary disability retirement benefits. The Board denied his application for accidental disability retirement benefits because the incident was not a "traumatic event" and because his disability was not a direct result of the incident. Tiefenbacher appealed, and the matter was scheduled before an administrative law judge (ALJ).

In the initial decision of November 20, 2009, the ALJ found that Tiefenbacher had pierced his foot on a piece of metal on June 5, 2003. However, the ALJ accepted the testimony of the Board's medical expert who opined that the sepsis had been developing in Tiefenbacher before he stepped on the piece of metal. As a result, the ALJ concluded Tiefenbacher's disability was not a direct result of stepping on the metal, and he denied Tiefenbacher's application for accidental disability retirement benefits. Further, the ALJ noted that "[e]ven if the sepsis were caused by the event, a fact that I do not find, it aggravated those serious underlying conditions. Under these circumstances, the event could not have been the essential significant or substantial contributing cause of the disability," in light of Gerba v. Board of Trustees, Public Employees' Retirement System, 83 N.J. 174, 187 (1980).

On December 12, 2007, the Board adopted the ALJ's finding that Tiefenbacher's disability was not the direct result of the June 5, 2003 incident. Presumably, to complete the record, the Board remanded the case back to the ALJ to determine whether the incident occurred during and as a result of the performance of Tiefenbacher's regular or assigned duties in light of the then recent Supreme Court decision of Richardson v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System, 192 N.J. 189 (2007). Although the ALJ thereafter resolved this question in Tiefenbacher's favor, the benefits were denied on the basis that the disability was not a direct result of the traumatic event.

The Board disagreed with the ALJ's conclusion that the incident took place during and as a result of the performance of Tiefenbacher's regular or assigned duties. Nonetheless, Tiefenbacher's accidental disability retirement benefits remained denied based on the earlier ...


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