Did you see NJ.com’s article regarding the corrections officer who was denied his accidental disability pension because a pension doctor said he could work? Read the full story here.
This is an all too real a situation that many officers find themselves. It is important to note that this type of pension is only awarded to officers injured in the line of duty. That means that the medical treatment they receive is managed under the workers’ compensation system. The State has all the power. That’s right, the officer has no right to choose a doctor under this system. So, as in this case, the State sent him to doctors that said he is not capable of performing his job duties and placed permanent restrictions on his physical activities. The DOC did not offer him a position within those restrictions. It would seem that he meets all the criteria to receive his benefits. But that’s not where this story ends. To add insult to injury, the Pension Board (also a State entity) then hires its’ own doctor to evaluate the officer to render his opinion with regard to his ability to work. With this background, the article raises many questions. Why weren’t the doctors chosen by the workers’ compensation system adequate? Are they not of sufficient caliber for their opinions to be vailid? Why is there even a need for the pension board to hire a separate doctor? If the WC doctors are not good enough to offer their opinion, then why are they good enough to treat injured workers? Isn’t the ultimate goal to give them the best care possible so they can return to work sooner rather than later and without restrictions? I wish I had the answers, but I don’t. I too find myself fighting for accidental disability pensions for officers injured in the line of duty and not fit for work after all medical treatment options have been exhausted.
What I do know is that the current standard to be eligible for benefits was established by the Jersey Supreme Court in 2007, see Richardson v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen’s Retirement System, 192 N.J. 189 (2007). The applicant must show that:
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 (not the result of pre-existing disease that is aggravated or accelerated by the work);
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.
This standard was established in order to standardize how “traumatic event” was interpreted. In short, an “accident” in the line of duty was intended to be covered. If the Board rejects a pension application, the injured worker is entitled to a hearing. In my experience, even if the Administrative Law Judge finds in your favor, the Board does not have to accept his or her opinion. The next step is to file a formal appeal to the Appellate Division. Appeals can be costly and most definitely time consuming. Time and money is something most officers in this situation do not have. At Stark & Stark, we have successfully obtained accidental disability pension benefits. We would be happy to review your case to determine if there is an appealable issue. Please call Stark & Stark for your free, no obligation consultation.