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Mount v. Board of Trustees

Supreme Court of New Jersey

June 5, 2018

CHRISTOPHER MOUNT, Appellant,
v.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES, POLICE AND FIREMEN'S RETIREMENT SYSTEM, Respondent. GERARDO MARTINEZ, Respondent,
v.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES, POLICE AND FIREMEN'S RETIREMENT SYSTEM, Appellant.

          Argued November 28, 2017

          Christopher Mount v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System (A-9-16): On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

          Gerardo Martinez v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System (A-83-16): On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

          M. Scott Tashjy argued the cause for appellant in Christopher Mount v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System (A-9-16) (The Tashjy Law Firm, attorneys; M. Scott Tashjy, on the briefs).

          Amy Chung, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for respondent in Christopher Mount v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System (A-9-16) (Christopher S. Porrino, Attorney General, attorney; Melissa H. Raksa, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Daniel F. Thornton, Deputy Attorney General, on the letter brief).

          Amy Chung, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for appellant in Gerardo Martinez v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System (A-83-16) (Christopher S. Porrino, Attorney General, attorney; Melissa H. Raksa, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel, and Daniel F. Thornton, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).

          Louis M. Barbone argued the cause for respondent in Gerardo Martinez v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen's Retirement System (A-83-16) (Jacobs & Barbone, attorneys; Louis M. Barbone, on the brief).

         SYLLABUS

          PATTERSON, J., writing for the Court.

         In these appeals, the Court reviews two determinations of the Police and Firemen's Retirement System (PFRS) Board of Trustees (Board), each involving a police officer's claim that he was "mentally . . . incapacitated" by a traumatic event within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(1).

         Mount v. Board of Trustees, PFRS: Officer Christopher Mount served as a Freehold Township police officer from 1996 until his retirement on May 1, 2010. On January 10, 2007, Mount responded to a serious motor vehicle accident. A group of bystanders were screaming at him, "[d]o something-do something." A vehicle "exploded into flames right in front of [him]." Mount lacked any firefighting equipment and called for the fire department. When "the smoke and the dust settled, " Mount was able to see that the three teenage victims' "skin was melted, the clothing was melted on to the skin." In 2010, Mount was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Following that diagnosis, he left his employment as a police officer and applied for accidental disability benefits. The Board denied that application. The Appellate Division affirmed the Board's decision, finding that the "concededly horrific event" was within Mount's job description and contemplated by his training. The Court granted certification. 228 N.J. 56 (2016).

         Martinez v. Board of Trustees, PFRS: Detective Gerardo ("Gerry") Martinez joined the Hammonton Police Department in 1990. In 2001, Martinez underwent forty hours of training on hostage negotiation. He was designated as a hostage negotiator for the Hammonton Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team and took additional training courses on hostage negotiation at least twice a year. Negotiators are trained to understand that the tactical component of a SWAT team may elect to enter a building without warning to confront a hostage-taker, and that such a confrontation may end with the use of force. On April 25, 2010, a suspect in an armed robbery, Donald Hoffman, fled to his mother's home and took his mother, his sister, and his mother's tenant hostage. Initially, Hoffman insisted that he and his hostages were "all going to die." After spending an hour speaking by cellphone with Martinez, Hoffman released the three hostages. For the next ten hours, Hoffman remained in his mother's home, refusing to surrender. Without alerting Martinez in advance, the tactical team entered the home. Through the cellphone connection, Martinez heard Hoffman yell "Gerry, Gerry . . . . Help me. Help me, Gerry. They're going to kill me, " followed by "two pops" and then silence. Martinez saw officers remove Hoffman's body and place it on the lawn. Martinez returned to work but was diagnosed with PTSD and major depressive disorder. The Board found Martinez ineligible for accidental disability benefits. An Appellate Division panel reversed. The Court granted certification. 230 N.J. 496 (2017).

         HELD: Mount has proven, under requirements established in case law construing N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(1), that he experienced a terrifying or horror-inducing event and that the event was undesigned and unexpected. The Court remands to the Appellate Division panel to decide Mount's claim that his mental disability was a direct result of that incident. Martinez has not demonstrated that the incident that caused his disability was undesigned and unexpected and therefore is not entitled to accidental disability benefits pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7.

         1. To be eligible for benefits under the accidental disability provision, a PFRS member must satisfy N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(1)'s requirement that "the medical board, after a medical examination of such member, shall certify that the member 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 and that such disability was not the result of the member's willful negligence and that such member is mentally or physically incapacitated for the performance of his usual duty and of any other available duty in the department which his employer is willing to assign to him." In Richardson v. Board of Trustees, PFRS, 192 N.J. 189, 212-13 (2007), the Court prescribed a five-pronged standard mandating that a PFRS member seeking such benefits prove "(1) that he is permanently and totally disabled; (2) as a direct result of a traumatic event that is (a) identifiable as to time and place, (b) undesigned and unexpected, and (c) caused by a circumstance external to the member . . .; (3) that the traumatic event occurred during and as a result of the member's regular or assigned duties; (4) that the disability was not the result of the member's willful negligence; and (5) that the member is mentally or physically incapacitated from performing his usual or any other duty." (pp. 21-27)

         2. In Patterson v. Board of Trustees, SPRS, the Court addressed what standard should govern when a member premises his or her claim for accidental disability benefits on "a permanent mental disability as a result of a mental stressor, without any physical impact." 194 N.J. 29, 33 (2008). The Court required that a member, seeking to predicate an award of accidental disability benefits on a mental disability due entirely to mental stressors, prove that the disability resulted from a "direct personal experience of a terrifying or horror-inducing event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a similarly serious threat to the physical integrity of the member or another person." Id. at 34. The Court applied that standard in Russo v. Board of Trustees, PFRS, which arose from the mental disability claim of a police officer-neither trained nor equipped to confront a major fire-who was ordered into a burning house to rescue the residents. 206 N.J. 14, 19 (2011). The officer heard cries but was prevented by the intense flame and heat from reaching a victim. Ibid. The officer's distress over that victim's death was compounded by the statements of family members at the scene, who blamed him for failing to rescue the victim. Id. at 20. The officer was diagnosed with PTSD, and was found by the expert for the Board to be permanently and totally disabled as a result of the fire. Id. at 20-21. The Court concluded that the officer met the benchmark of Patterson. Id. at 33-34. (pp. 27-31)

         3. In sum, jurisprudence construing N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(1)'s "traumatic event" language mandates a two-step analysis in cases in which a member claims permanent mental incapacity as a result of an exclusively psychological trauma. The court first determines whether the member directly experienced a "terrifying or horror-inducing event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a similarly serious threat to the physical integrity of the member or another person." Patterson, 194 N.J. at 50. That event must be "of consequence and objectively capable of causing a reasonable person to suffer a disabling mental injury." Russo, 206 N.J. at 31. If the event meets the Patterson test, the court then applies the Richardson factors to the member's application. Id. at 32-33. (pp. 31-32)

         4. In Mount, the Board determined that the explosion and fire witnessed by Mount was a "terrifying or horror-inducing event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, " so the Court does not consider the Patterson standard. The Court stresses that to properly apply the Richardson standard, the Board and a reviewing court must carefully consider not only the member's job responsibilities and training, but all aspects of the event itself. No single factor governs the analysis. In this case, by virtue of extraordinary circumstances, Mount confronted an incident that was undesigned and unexpected, and therefore satisfied that component of the Richardson test. 192 N.J. at 212-13. However, the issue of causation is unresolved, so the Court remands the matter to the Appellate Division panel for its consideration of whether Mount's disability directly resulted from the January 10, 2007 incident. (pp. 32-35)

         5. In Martinez, the Appellate Division panel reversed the Board's determination that Martinez failed to satisfy the Patterson standard. The panel concluded that Martinez had proven that he directly and personally experienced a terrifying or horror-inducing event; the Court concurs. The Court disagrees with the panel, however, with respect to the application of the Richardson factors, finding ample support in the record for the Board's determination that Hoffman's shooting was not undesigned and unexpected. Accordingly, the Court reverses the Appellate Division's determination and reinstates the Board's finding that Martinez is not entitled to accidental disability benefits. (pp. 35-39)

         6. As Richardson reflects, the Court views the Legislature's mandate that a member prove that his or her disability was the direct result of a "traumatic event" to impose a significant limitation on the recovery of enhanced benefits. 192 N.J. at 210. Appeals that involve mental disabilities arising exclusively from mental stressors pose particular challenges in that regard. Additional guidance from the Legislature would assist retirement system members, boards, and counsel as they consider applications for benefits, and our courts as they review these important determinations. (pp. 39-40)

         In Mount, the judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter REMANDED. In Martinez, the Appellate Division's determination is REVERSED and the Board's determination is REINSTATED.

          CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, FERNANDEZ-VINA, SOLOMON, and TIMPONE join in JUSTICE PATTERSON's opinion.

          PATTERSON JUSTICE.

         A member of the Police and Firemen's Retirement System (PFRS) who is found to be "mentally or physically incapacitated" from performing his or her usual duty or other available duty may retire with accidental disability benefits, provided that he or she meets the requirements prescribed by N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(1). The statute mandates a medical board certification "that the [PFRS] member 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." Ibid. When it enacted N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(1), the Legislature declined to define a "traumatic event" that warrants an award of accidental disability benefits. Ibid. It left that determination to the courts.

         In Richardson v. Board of Trustees, PFRS, 192 N.J. 189, 212-13 (2007), we established a governing standard for retirement system members' accidental disability benefit applications under N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7. Under the Richardson test, the member must prove, among other requirements, that the traumatic event that he or she experienced was "undesigned and unexpected." Ibid.

         For cases in which the member claims that he or she suffers from a permanent mental incapacity as a result of an exclusively psychological trauma, we amended our analysis. Under the standard established in Patterson v. Board of Trustees, SPRS, 194 N.J. 29, 34 (2008), the member must demonstrate that his or her disability results "from direct personal experience of a terrifying or horror-inducing event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a similarly serious threat to the physical integrity of the member or another person, " and that the event is "not inconsequential but is objectively capable of causing a reasonable person in similar circumstances to suffer a disabling mental injury." If the member meets Patterson's threshold requirement, the court then applies the Richardson test; if he or she fails to do so, the court denies accidental disability benefits without applying the Richardson test. Ibid.; see also Russo v. Bd. of Trs., PFRS, 206 N.J. 14, 32 (2011) (explaining that once Patterson's horror-inducing event standard is satisfied, "Richardson comes into play").

         In these appeals, the Court reviews two determinations of the PFRS Board of Trustees (Board), each involving a police officer's claim that he was "mentally . . . incapacitated" by a traumatic event within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7(1). In Mount v. Board of Trustees, PFRS, the Board and the Appellate Division panel rejected Officer Christopher Mount's claim that he was permanently disabled because he witnessed at close range the incineration of three young victims in an explosion after a high-speed motor vehicle collision. We hold that Mount has proven that he experienced a terrifying or horror-inducing event that meets the standard of Patterson, and that the event was undesigned and unexpected within the meaning of Richardson. We therefore reverse the Appellate Division panel's judgment and remand to the panel to decide Mount's claim that his mental disability was a direct result of that incident.

         In Martinez v. Board of Trustees, PFRS, we review the Appellate Division's decision reversing the Board's denial of accidental disability benefits to Detective Gerardo Martinez, a municipal police department's hostage negotiator. Martinez claimed that his permanent disability resulted from psychological injuries sustained when a lengthy hostage negotiation ended with the shooting death of the hostage-taker, as he and Martinez spoke by cellphone. We hold that Martinez has not demonstrated that the incident that caused his disability was undesigned and unexpected under the Richardson test, and therefore conclude that he is not entitled to accidental disability benefits pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7.

         I.

         A.

         1.

         Mount served as a Freehold Township police officer from 1996 until his retirement on May 1, 2010.[1] Prior to joining the Freehold Township Police Department, Mount was trained at the Monmouth County Police Academy and served for three years as a Monmouth County Sheriff's Officer, working in courthouse security and serving warrants.

         Although the New Jersey Civil Service Commission's job specifications for "police officer" state that an officer "[r]emoves (or assists in removing) dead or injured from wrecked and/or overturned vehicles by manually lifting them, " Mount denied that he was trained to extract accident victims from vehicles. According to Mount, he was instructed to respond to a motor vehicle accident by directing traffic, conducting crowd control, and preparing accident reports. He stated that prior to the incident that gave rise to this appeal, he responded to one fatal motor vehicle accident, to other accidents resulting in serious injuries, and to emergency calls involving engine fires.

         At approximately 2:00 p.m. on January 10, 2007, as Mount drove his patrol vehicle on his regular shift, he received a call from dispatch about a serious motor vehicle accident. Mount immediately responded to the location of the accident. Following police department protocol, he blocked traffic with his patrol vehicle and ran to a sport utility vehicle that had crossed the median and was facing north in a southbound lane. It was later determined that three teenagers were in that vehicle.

         Mount recalled that the vehicle was extensively damaged, with black smoke emerging from the windows, and what "appeared to be the arm of a human being" hanging from the driver's side window. He heard no sound from the vehicle's interior. He recalled that a group of bystanders were screaming at him, "[d]o something -- do something, " and that it was "getting pretty chaotic" at the scene.

         Mount stated that when he was between a foot and a foot and a half from the vehicle, it "immediately engulfed, exploded into flames right in front of [him], right inside, " and that flames were "billowing out of the windows of the car." He testified that although the explosion did not knock him to the ground, it pushed him backward. Mount said that the heat from the explosion was so intense that he "felt like [his] eyelashes were going to burn off." On cross-examination, Mount conceded that the explosion burned only his "[n]ose hairs, that's about it, " and that he sustained no physical injuries which would have required medical treatment.

         Mount testified that he lacked any firefighting equipment to combat the explosion and fire. He stated that he had only a crowbar, a small fire extinguisher intended to be used to put out "paper fires, " and a basic medical kit, and that his polyester uniform would "melt" in extreme heat.

         Mount called for more police patrols, emergency medical technicians, and the municipal fire department, which had already been contacted. When the fire department arrived, Mount sat in his patrol car as firefighters extinguished the fire.

         When "the smoke and the dust settled, " Mount returned to the vehicle, and was able to view its interior. From a distance of four to five feet, Mount saw "three human bodies that were involved in that fire." Characterizing the scene as "the worst I saw, " Mount recalled that the victims' "skin was melted, the clothing was melted on to the skin." He stated that "[e]verything was just like a wax, " and that the victims "were molded into their car, into the vehicle. That's how they melted." Mount testified that "the smell of . . . burnt flesh got into [his] nose, it got into [his] throat . . . . Every swallow that [he] took had that smell and that taste from the burning flesh."

         Mount did not touch the victims' remains. He did not recall whether he witnessed the removal of the victims from the vehicle. He later learned that in addition to the three teenage victims whom he had observed, the driver of the other car was also killed in the accident, and a child in that car was seriously injured.

         Mount contends that he began to experience psychological problems after the January 10, 2007 accident. According to Mount, "something hit him, " but he "didn't know what it was." Nonetheless, he continued to work as a Freehold Township police officer for more than two years after the accident, and was not treated for any psychiatric condition until 2009, when he successfully underwent rehabilitation for alcohol abuse. Mount testified that he returned to work following rehabilitation, and that he was "working fine" but "[s]till was having problems" which he could not identify.

         In 2010, Mount was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). See American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 271 (5th ed. 2013) (identifying diagnostic criteria for PTSD). As Mount explained the timing of his diagnosis, "[t]he PTSD wasn't observed or didn't come out until 2010." Following that diagnosis, he left his employment as a police officer.

         2.

         On August 31, 2010, Mount applied for accidental disability benefits. He identified the January 10, 2007 incident as the disabling event, and stated that he was mentally incapacitated to serve as a police officer due to PTSD and anxiety.

         The Board determined that Mount was eligible for ordinary disability benefits, but denied his application for accidental disability benefits. The Board agreed that Mount satisfied several of N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7's requirements.[2] It found, however, that the January 10, 2007 incident was not "objectively capable of causing a reasonable person in similar circumstances to suffer a disabling mental injury" under Patterson, 194 N.J. at 51, and that the incident was not "undesigned and unexpected" as Richardson requires, 192 N.J. at 212. Although the Board reconsidered its decision at Mount's request, it reaffirmed its denial of accidental disability benefits.

         Mount appealed, and the matter was submitted as a contested case to an ALJ, who conducted a hearing. As the hearing began, the ALJ noted that based on the agreement of counsel he would address only two issues: whether the January 10, 2007 accident was undesigned and unexpected under Richardson, and whether that accident was terrifying or horror-inducing in accordance with Patterson. He acknowledged the parties' agreement that no medical testimony would be presented. Mount was the sole witness at the hearing.

         In his decision, the ALJ rejected the Board's determination that Mount had failed to prove that he experienced a "terrifying or horror-inducing event" under the Patterson test. He noted that Mount's "experience involved witnessing a scene in which three teenagers burned to death, smelling burning flesh, hearing concerned bystanders screaming for ...


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