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NEW JERSEY

Straub v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen’s Retirement System

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

No. A-2308-19; 2022 WL 1086655

Decided: 4/12/2022

Background:

This court affirmed the agency decision of the Board of Trustees of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System (Board) which held that Straub was not entitled to accidental disability retirement benefits, but instead ordinary disability retirement benefits. Two months after the court affirmed the decision, Straub wrote a letter to the Board seeking to appeal the decision, and receive involuntary disability retirement benefits instead. The Board’s secretary informed Straub that he could not receive involuntary disability benefits because his formed employer did not submit an involuntary disability retirement application on his behalf, and he did not appeal the agency decision within 45 days of the November 15, 2017 notice of decision.

Straub’s counsel wrote to the Board’s secretary demanding the Board take formal action, and requesting that his former employer be allowed to apply for involuntary disability retirement benefits for Straub. Straub’s attorney then sent a “SECOND REQUEST” letter. The secretary of the Board replied and reiterated what she had told Straub. Straub then appealed the Board’s decision denying his request to reconsider its previous decision.

Holding:

The court found that there was no merit to Straub’s request that his benefits should be reclassified to involuntary disability retirement benefits. Statute and regulation govern who is eligible for involuntary disability retirement benefits. Applications for these benefits must include a resolution of the governing body certifying that the employee is disabled and unable to perform their regular or assigned duties.

The court held that the language of the controlling guidelines was unambiguous, and the only party that can apply for involuntary disability retirement benefits for Straub is his former employer through the passing of a resolution stating he is disabled and unable to perform his regular or assigned duties. Since no such resolution was passed, Straub had no standing to request the change in benefits. The court further found that Straub’s reconsideration request was procedurally deficient, as he should have appealed the agency decision of the Board within the 45 day time frame.

Affirmed.

Little v. Board of Trustees, Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

No. A-2976-19; 2022 WL 1026083

Decided: 4/06/2022

Background:

Appellant, Wesley Little, appeals from a February 13, 2020 final agency decision of the Board of Trustees (Board) of the Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund (TPAF), which adopted an Administrative Law Judge’s (ALJ) final decision. Little was a special education teacher, when, on October 17, 2012, he was assaulted by a student, who smacked, punched, and kicked Little. Little went to the emergency room, and eventually came under the care of a Dr. Villota, to whom Little self-reported concussions in college. Little was referred to a Dr. Gadson for his “noticeable depression.” Dr. Gadson diagnosed him with PTSD and moderate depression.

In February 2013, Little applied for accidental disability retirement benefits. The Trenton Board of Education submitted a certification for disability retirement, stating that Little resigned on February 28, 2013. Little treated with a Dr. Tracy, Ph.D., who diagnosed him with PTSD and Dysthymia Disorder which were sever enough to preclude him from returning to his job as a teacher. Little was in a car accident on his way to see Dr. Gadson on August 13, 2012, where he suffered several injuries, though he was released from the hospital after 20 minutes because he insisted he was fine. Little then received psychiatric treatment with Dr. Glass, MD.

On July 10, 2014, the Board denied Little’s application for accidental disability retirement benefits, and stated there was no evidence of direct causation of a total and permanent disability. Little appealed, and the matter came before an ALJ. Dr. Glass testified on behalf of Little, and a Dr. Filippone testified on behalf of the Board. In the course of the case, Dr. Glass lost his medical license, and Dr. Tracy was permitted to testify for Little, but Dr. Glass’s testimony was never stricken from the record. On December 12, 2019, the ALJ issued a decision finding Little to be total and permanently disabled, and granting him ordinary disability benefits. The ALJ concluded that Little cannot prove that the assault was the essential significant or substantial contributing cause of the disability. The TPAF adopted that decision, and the instant appeal followed.

Holding:

In Richardson v. Board of Trustees, Police, and Firemen’s Retirement System the court set forth a 5 pronged test, requiring a member seeking accidental disability benefits to prove, in relevant part that he is totally and permanently disabled “as a direct result of a traumatic event that is identifiable as to time and place, undesigned and unexpected, and caused by a circumstance external to the member.” Further case law established that what is required is a “traumatic event that constitutes the essential significant or the substantial contributing cause of the resultant disability.”

This court held that the sole legal issue before it was whether Little’s disability was a direct result of the October 2012 assault. The court held that the Board’s decision was arbitrary and capricious because it was “untethered” to the substantial and credible evidence of record. The court further held that the record supports only one conclusion: that the October 2012 assault was the “essential significant or substantial contributing cause” of Little’s disability. Citing the Petrucelli case, the court stated that “if claimant here cannot recover after a severe trauma, superimposed on a nonsymptomatic [condition]…no claimant could ever recover accidental benefits in any circumstance where there exists a quiescent underlying condition which had caused no trouble and might never cause any trouble.” (211 N.J. Super. at 289).

Reversed.