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Isabel Nichols v. Board of Trustees

July 3, 2012

ISABEL NICHOLS, PETITIONER-APPELLANT,
v.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES, PUBLIC EMPLOYEES' RETIREMENT SYSTEM, RESPONDENT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Board of Trustees of the Public Employees' Retirement System, Department of the Treasury, PERS No. 2-1248023.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted May 2, 2012

Before Judges Cuff and Lihotz.

Petitioner Isabel Nichols 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.

The facts are undisputed. From March 7, 2005, to April 20, 2010, Nichols worked as an information technology specialist for the New Jersey Department of Treasury, Division of Administration. She was to report to work at 7:30 a.m.; her workday ended at 3:30 p.m.

On February 22, 2008, there was a heavy snow fall. Nichols arrived at her workplace at 6:45 a.m. She circled the building, examining the entrances discovering each was snow covered. She proceeded to the closest entrance on the side of the building, which contained an exterior stairway. Nichols maneuvered the stairway, clutching the handrail, and took two steps on the landing, when she slipped on ice under the snow and fell. Nichols gathered herself and eventually entered the building. The clock at the security desk reflected it was approximately 6:57 a.m.

After consulting with Human Resources, Nichols completed an accident report, identifying she suffered injury to her "left hand[,] wrist[,] right shoulder [and] neck[,] left hip and back." She was initially examined by a physician, who referred her to an orthopedic surgeon. Nichols was immediately placed on Sick Leave Injury (SLI), and thereafter pursued workers' compensation benefits and a civil action for negligence against the landlord and its agents.

On April 14, 2010, Nichols submitted an application to PERS seeking accidental disability retirement benefits. PERS concluded Nichols was permanently disabled as a result of the February 22, 2008 accident and was entitled to service retirement benefits, if she applied, but lacked the requisite service requirements for ordinary disability retirement benefits. Moreover, PERS denied Nichols' request for the higher accidental disability retirement benefits, concluding "the incident did not occur during and as a result of [her] regular or assigned [work] duties."*fn1

Nichols appealed and the matter was transferred to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) for a hearing, where Nichols was the sole witness. Additionally, the parties agreed to admit various documents into evidence.

The initial decision of the ALJ found the facts surrounding Nichols' injury failed to show she was injured "during and as a result of the performance of h[er] regular and assigned duties."

Accordingly, the ALJ denied her claim for accidental disability retirement benefits. Following Nichols' appeal, PERS adopted the ALJ's findings and conclusions.

Judicial review of administrative agency determinations is limited. Messick v. Bd. of Review, 420 N.J. Super. 321, 324 (App. Div. 2011). We accord the agency's exercise of its statutorily delegated responsibilities a "strong presumption of reasonableness," City of Newark v. Natural Res. Council, 82 N.J. 530, 539, cert. denied, 449 U.S. 983, 101 S. Ct. 400, 66 L. Ed. 2d 245 (1980), and defer to its findings of fact. Mazza v. Bd. of Trustees, Police & Firemen's Ret. Sys., 143 N.J. 22, 29 (1995). "[T]he test is not whether an appellate court would come to the same conclusion if the original determination was its to make, but rather whether the factfinder could reasonably so conclude upon the proofs." Charatan v. Bd. of Review, 200 N.J. Super. 74, 79 (App. Div. 1985). Accordingly, we will not upset an agency determination unless it is shown to be arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable, its findings lacked support in the evidence, or that it violated the legislative grant of authority governing the agency. In re Herrmann, 192 N.J. 19, 27-28 (2007). That said, we are "'in no way bound by the agency's interpretation of a statute or its determination of a strictly legal issue[.]'" Utley v. Bd. of Review, 194 N.J. 534, 551 (2008) (quoting Mayflower Sec. Co. v. Bureau of Sec., 64 N.J. 85, 93 (1973).

"[P]ension statutes are 'remedial in character' and 'should be liberally construed and administered in favor of the persons intended to be benefited thereby.'" Klumb v. Bd. of Educ., 199 N.J. 14, 34 (2009) (quoting Geller v. Dep't of Treas., 53 N.J. 591, 597-98 (1969)). Nichols sought benefits under N.J.S.A. 43:15A-43, which allows an injured public employee to retire and collect accidental disability benefits "if said employee 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[.]" To qualify, the traumatic event must occur "during voluntary performance of regular or assigned duties at a ...


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