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Caminiti v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

May 30, 2013

FRANK CAMINITI, Appellant,
v.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES, POLICE AND FIREMEN'S RETIREMENT SYSTEM, Respondent.

Argued May 9, 2012.

On appeal from the Board of Trustees of the Police and Firemen's Retirement System, Department of Treasury, PFRS No. 3-10-30333.

Steven J. Kossup argued the cause for appellant.

Jeff S. Ignatowitz argued the cause for respondent (Jeffrey S. Chiesa, Attorney General, attorney; Lewis A. Scheindlin, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Mr. Ignatowitz, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).

Before Fuentes, Graves, and Koblitz, Judges.

OPINION

FUENTES, P.J.A.D.

Appellant Frank Caminiti appeals, for the second time, the decision of the Board of Trustees of the Police and Firemen's Retirement System (Board) denying his application for accidental disability benefits. In the first appeal, Caminiti v. Board of Trustees, Police & Firemen's Retirement System, 394 N.J.Super. 478 (App. Div. 2007), the Board referred the matter to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL), where an administrative law judge (ALJ) conducted an evidentiary hearing and issued an initial recommendation to deny appellant's application for accidental disability benefits. Id. at 481. The Board adopted the ALJ's initial recommendation, and, on appellant's direct appeal to this court, we affirmed the Board's decision. Id. at 480.

While appellant's petition for certification appealing our decision was pending, the Supreme Court decided Patterson v. Board of Trustees, State Police Retirement System, 194 N.J. 29 (2008), and Richardson v. Board of Trustees, Police & Firemen's Retirement System, 192 N.J. 189 (2007), two landmark cases that changed the legal standard for determining eligibility to receive accidental disability benefits, whether caused by physical injury or by purely mental stressors. As a result, appellant's case was remanded so that the Board could reconsider his application in light of the standards established by Patterson and Richardson.

On remand, the Board again denied appellant's application, ostensibly based on the standards of review adopted by the Court in Patterson and Richardson. This time, however, the Board rejected the ALJ's recommendation to grant appellant accidental disability benefits. Undaunted, appellant once again appeals the Board's decision to this court. While his second appeal was pending before this court, our Supreme Court decided Russo v. Board of Trustees, Police & Firemen's Retirement System, 206 N.J. 14 (2011), in which the Court reversed the Board's decision to deny a petitioner accidental disability benefits. Id. at 35. In Russo, the Court held that the Board had misapplied the standards established in Patterson and Richardson. Id. at 33. Writing for the unanimous Court, Justice Long noted:

In this case, the member, a policeman, was involved in a terrifying fire rescue in which he was injured and the victim died. He applied for accidental disability benefits and, according to the Board . . ., satisfied Richardson and experienced a Patterson-type horrific event. Despite that, the Board denied accidental disability benefits on the ground that, although the member experienced a qualifying "horror-inducing event, " the event was "inconsequential" and "not objectively capable of causing a reasonable person in similar circumstances to suffer a disabling mental injury." That determination, which was affirmed by the Appellate Division, was an improper application of Patterson, in which we declared that a qualifying traumatic event is, in itself, objectively capable of causing a reasonable person to suffer permanent mental injury. Thus, the Board erred in denying the member accidental disability benefits.
[Id. at 18-19 (citation omitted).]

In this appeal, appellant now argues that the Board's decision in his case was arbitrary and capricious and, as was the case in Russo, misapplied the standards established by the Supreme Court in Patterson and Richardson. We agree with appellant's position and reverse. The Board's denial of his application for accidental disability benefits mischaracterized the factual record and was predicated on an incorrect application of the prevailing legal standards.

Although we provided a summary description of the salient facts and procedural history of this case in appellant's first appeal, Caminiti, supra, 394 N.J.Super. at 480-81, we will nevertheless elaborate and expand upon the events that triggered this protracted legal saga. Our intent in doing so is to give a meaningful factual context to our legal analysis. These facts are derived from the testimony and evidence presented to the ALJ at the first evidentiary hearing.

I

Appellant joined the Essex County Sheriff's Department in 1986. He also worked with the County's emergency services unit as a certified fire investigator and canine trainer. This required him to respond to incidents involving shootings, fire investigations, and bomb threats. On January 20, 2000, appellant was dispatched with his trained police dog to the campus of Seton Hall University in the Township of South Orange to investigate a major fire that had occurred the previous day; a student dormitory had been set ablaze, causing the death of three resident students and injuring many others.

As he drove through the South Mountain Reservation, he saw a vehicle in a parking area with its front hood, trunk, and both doors open and a man walking towards the woods. Simultaneously, he heard a radio call reporting that a man was in the area attempting to commit suicide. As he tried to notify dispatch of his observations, a second radio call reported that this same individual was threatening a police officer with a tire iron.

Appellant parked his vehicle on the road and walked toward the Reservation area. He soon saw a man "swinging a tire iron wildly in the air, " beating the top of a car, and reaching inside through the open doors to hit the dashboard. He also saw a Maplewood police car and an officer he recognized as a Maplewood police lieutenant.

Appellant radioed the license plate number of the car the man was hitting and was informed that it was registered to B.R.[1]B.R. was swinging the tire iron in the air, shouting profanities, and threatening to "kill ya's." Appellant began talking to B.R. in an attempt to calm him down. His efforts proved to be ineffectual however, because B.R. continued to yell obscenities and "started to come at [appellant]." When B.R. was about four feet away, appellant drew his service weapon with one hand and put up the other hand to signal B.R. to stop his advancement. Believing that his life was in danger, appellant started to retreat. At one point, B.R. swung at appellant, but eventually stopped advancing towards him.

Appellant testified that, for the first time in his career, he feared he would have to discharge his weapon and possibly kill someone. As his finger began to pull the trigger, he stopped and continued to retreat further because he also feared he would inadvertently shoot the Maplewood lieutenant who was standing nearby. Appellant gave the following description of his thought process at the time:

I'm moving pretty . . . quickly backward, but I'm -- also mindful that the grass has a little bit of snow on it and I'm on the berm and I'm afraid -- I'm thinking about, "Oh, if I fall, he's got the jump on me."
I thought . . . if he possibly got close enough that he hit me in the head or disabled me, that he could -- in his state of mind, he could take my -- my weapon and either use it on me or on the other officer or himself or anybody walking through that park at that -- walking their dog in that park through that hour.
I'm in a tunnel vision. Everything just started to go slow. I really felt I was going to have to shoot [B.R.] and I was -- I was very nervous.

Although B.R. remained standing in one place, his mood changed "from second to second, " and his mental state appeared unstable: "One minute he was saying that he was going to kill [appellant] or hurt [someone else] and the next minute he was saying, 'Oh, you're going to hurt me.'"

When appellant radioed for additional units, B.R. advanced towards him for a second time. At this point, Maplewood Police Officer Jimmy Devaul and another Essex County Sheriff's Officer, Kamal Brown, arrived as back up. Devaul drew his weapon because he feared B.R. would throw the tire iron at him or lunge at him using it as a weapon.[2] The Maplewood officer, who was farther away from B.R. than appellant, used his car door as a barricade.

As B.R. began to walk across the parking lot away from the officers, appellant holstered his weapon and took out his pepper spray canister. Unexpectedly, B.R. turned around and began to walk towards appellant. Appellant again asked B.R. to put down the tire iron. At first, B.R. seemed responsive to the command. He threw the tire iron on the ground and slumped over. He then "all of a sudden out of nowhere raged up again, " turned towards Officer Brown, who is African-American, made a racial comment, and reached out to pick up the tire iron. Appellant testified that he believed that B.R. was going to strike Brown with the tire iron. Appellant jumped on B.R.'s back and tackled him to the ground, while Brown kicked the tire iron away from B.R.'s reach.

Appellant handcuffed B.R. and placed him against his vehicle with his head resting on top of the roof in order to search him. B.R. remained uncooperative and "wouldn't stay still." Appellant asked B.R. whether he had any weapons on his person or anything else that could injure appellant. When B.R. responded that he did not have anything dangerous on his person, appellant bent down to search B.R.'s legs and lower-torso. According to Devaul, as appellant rose to search B.R.'s upper body, B.R.'s chest and upper body "came off the car, " and he turned "very quickly" towards appellant.[3]

B.R. was wearing a long-sleeve cotton shirt. When appellant backed up and raised his hand to defend himself, a needle that had been laying sideways in B.R.'s shirt pocket pierced appellant's middle finger from the bottom through to the nail. Appellant pushed B.R. away and the needle, which remained in B.R.'s shirt, came out of appellant's finger. B.R. immediately apologized, saying: "I'm sorry. I just used it. I forgot. . . . [D]on't worry. I don't have AIDS."

Appellant had been trained to protect himself from blood borne pathogens and the transmission of HIV and AIDS. He testified that at that moment he thought: "Oh, man. This guy just signed my death certificate." He became "very upset" and "wasn't in [his] right mind." He thought of his children and how to tell his wife. Other officers took appellant aside and attempted to squeeze the blood out of his finger. A supervisor told appellant that B.R. had "track marks all up and down his arms" and ordered appellant to go to St. Barnabas Hospital.

Appellant described what occurred when he arrived at the hospital:

The doctor sat me down, asked everybody to leave the room and sat down and said, "Look, this is a -- a serious thing. You got stuck with a -- a drug user's needle and you need to take some precautions now. . . . There's no way I can tell right now whether you're infected or not." He went through that whole thing with me. He said it's too soon. He said there's always a chance that something can happen. He said, "So I'm prescribing you" . . . four different medication and "We don't know for sure that these things work, but it's standard practice. We call it the AIDS cocktail, that if you take this medicine, it could possibly prevent you from contracting AIDS." He said "could possibly." I said is -- and he said, "No. I'm telling you could possibly."

Appellant testified that he became very emotional and began to cry. He "felt that [his] whole world had just caved in." The doctors told him "not to have any saliva contact with [his] children for at least six months" and to avoid all sexual relations with his ...


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