On appeal from the Board of Trustees of the Police and Firemen's Retirement System, Department of Treasury, Docket No. 3-10-34065.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Skillman and Fuentes.
This is an appeal from the denial by the Board of Trustees of the Police and Firemen's Retirement System (PFRS Board) of an application for an accidental disability pension based on a psychological disability caused by psychic stimuli.
Appellant Peggy O'Keefe was a corrections officer employed by the Juvenile Justice Commission. Appellant began her State employment on November 25, 1995, and at the time of the psychologically disabling incident, she occupied the title of Corrections Sergeant and was assigned to the New Jersey Training School in Jamesburg.
On May 9, 2005, appellant was ordered by her supervisor to report to the Jamesburg Police Department to search a female suspect in the jail because there were no female police officers on duty at the time. Two police officers escorted appellant to a dark holding cell, where she found the suspect sitting on the floor with her back against a bench and wrists handcuffed to the bench. The suspect had on an oxygen mask, which was attached to a portable tank.
Appellant told the Jamesburg Police Sergeant who brought her to the cell: "I can't search her like this because she's all crunched down[.]" Appellant also asked the sergeant, "What's up with the oxygen mask? Anybody monitoring her?" The sergeant responded: "Don't worry . . . we're watching her. We have a camera." The sergeant again asked appellant to search the female suspect because she was believed to be in possession of cocaine.
Appellant re-entered the cell and attempted to conduct a patdown search. However, appellant found it difficult to conduct a thorough search because the suspect was crouched on the floor in handcuffs, and appellant's initial search did not disclose any contraband.
Appellant left the cell and asked the sergeant to remove the suspect's handcuffs to enable appellant to conduct a strip search. However, the sergeant refused to remove the suspect's handcuffs because they had had "a problem with her," and he asked appellant to go back into the cell and "[d]o the best you can" without removing the handcuffs.
Consequently, appellant again entered the cell and attempted to search the suspect. However, she again experienced difficulty, and while she was in the cell, the suspect began to shake. Appellant reported this shaking to the sergeant, who asked her, "do you think she's faking it?" Appellant responded to the sergeant: "You got to do something."
The sergeant called his lieutenant, who also told appellant to do the best she could because they needed to find the drugs to make sure the suspect did not ingest them. The lieutenant also suggested the suspect was faking it to avoid a search, but appellant insisted she was not. The patrolman and sergeant entered the cell and tried to pick up the suspect, telling her not to "play dead." They returned to tell appellant that the suspect had stopped shaking and that first aid had been called.
Appellant returned to the cell a third time, feeling that the officers were disregarding her opinion and pulling rank. She then conducted a search underneath the suspect's clothes, but, although she thought she'd found something, it turned out to only be the suspect's undergarments. At that point, the paramedics entered and asked appellant to step aside. One paramedic removed the mask and appellant saw dried blood under the suspect's nose. The paramedics then asked the officers to uncuff the suspect, which someone did. While appellant stepped towards the doorway, she heard one of the paramedics say "[w]e're going to pronounce her now and I'm going to call it in." Appellant realized only then that the suspect was dead.
Appellant never returned to work after this incident and subsequently applied to the PFRS Board for an accidental disability pension. The Board granted appellant an ordinary disability pension, finding that she was totally and permanently disabled from the performance of her regular assigned duties, but denied her application for an accidental disability pension on the ground that the May 9, 2005 incident was not a "traumatic event." Appellant ...