December 8, 2010
JOANNE CAPORALE, PETITIONER-APPELLANT,
BOARD OF TRUSTEES, PUBLIC EMPLOYEES' RETIREMENT SYSTEM, RESPONDENT-RESPONDENT.
On appeal from the Board of Trustees of the Public Employees' Retirement System, Department of Treasury, Agency Docket No.2-10-165569.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued: November 17, 2010
Before Judges Simonelli and Fasciale.
Petitioner, Joanne Caporale, appeals from a Final Decision of the Board of Trustees of the Public Employees' Retirement System (PERS) denying her application for accidental disability retirement benefits. We affirm.
Toms River Board of Education employed Caporale as an elementary school aide. On October 24, 1994, Caporale tripped on a rug at Cedar Grove School and fractured her left radius and ulna. She wore a cast for twelve weeks and was unable to move her arm or fingers when the cast was removed. Her pain spread eventually from her left arm to other parts of her body and she saw between twenty to twenty-five doctors over five years. In 1997, she treated with a psychiatrist because she was depressed over her inability to engage in normal life activities. She continued to have "extreme severe pain in her [left] wrist and arm." Caporale claimed that between 1997 and 1999 she remained unable to engage in her normal life activities. She continued to treat with various doctors and was diagnosed with reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD) in 1999.*fn1 Caporale never returned to work.
Caporale filed a claim for social security disability benefits on March 31, 1997. The Social Security Administration (SSA) initially denied her claim. Caporale filed a pro se appeal to the SSA Office of Hearings and Appeals, and on December 12, 1997, the SSA declared Caporale fully disabled and granted her disability benefits. The SSA determined that her period of disability began the day after the accident.
On December 2, 1999, Caporale filed her application for accidental disability retirement benefits. This claim was filed five years and six weeks after the accident. On April 20, 2000, PERS denied her application, concluding that (1) the accident was not a "traumatic event;" and (2) the application was untimely. On April 26, 2000, Caporale requested a formal hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). While that hearing was pending, the PERS considered additional medical documents and determined that the accident was a "traumatic event." As a result, the only issue before the ALJ was whether Caporale's application for accidental disability benefits was timely or whether, as Caporale claimed, the delay was due to a delayed manifestation of her disability or circumstances beyond her control, such as her alleged depression, confusion, or inability to function.
After a hearing on October 2, 2008, the ALJ denied Caporale's application for an accidental disability pension, finding that her full disability was manifest as early as 1997 when the SSA found her fully disabled and she was fully capable of filing the application within the five-year period. On February 19, 2009, PERS adopted the findings of fact and conclusions of law of the ALJ and reaffirmed its original denial of Caporale's application.
On appeal, Caporale admits her application was untimely but contends that the delay was beyond her control and her medical condition did not manifest until after the filing deadline.
Our role in reviewing the decision of an administrative agency is limited. Circus Liquors, Inc. v. Middletown Twp., 199 N.J. 1, 9 (2009); In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644, 656 (1999). We will not disturb the determination of an administrative agency absent a showing that it was arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable; that is, 1) "the agency's action violates expressed or implied legislative policies"; 2) "the record [does not] contain substantial evidence to support the findings on which the agency based its action"; and 3) "in applying the legislative policies to the facts, the agency clearly erred in reaching a conclusion that could not reasonably have been made on a showing of the relevant factors." Circus Liquors, supra, 199 N.J. at 10 (quoting Mazza v. Bd. of Trs., 143 N.J. 22, 25 (1995)); see also In re Musick, 143 N.J. 206, 216 (1996). Applying these standards, we discern no reason to disturb the PERS' conclusion.
The deadline for filing an application for accidental disability retirement benefits is governed by N.J.S.A. 43:15A-43, which provides in part that:
[t]he application to accomplish such retirement must be filed within five years of the original traumatic event, but the board of trustees may consider an application filed after the five-year period if it can be factually demonstrated to the satisfaction of the board of trustees that the disability is due to the accident and the filing was not accomplished within the five-year period due to a delayed manifestation of the disability or to circumstances beyond the control of the member.
Caporale admits she missed the deadline for filing her application for accidental disability retirement benefits. The evidence indicates that the delay in filing was not beyond her control and there was no delayed manifestation of her disability warranting relaxation of the deadline; as she was well aware in 1997 that she was totally disabled. Accordingly, we conclude that PERS' decision is supported by sufficient evidence in the record and is not arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable.