A resounding victory for New Jersey Police and Firemen suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder was handed down by the Appellate Division on July 13, 2011 in applying the Supreme Court’s intention to include psychiatric disabilities as a recognized disability in the matter of Guadagno v. Board of Trustees, PFRS, 194 N.J. 29 (2008). In Hayes v. Board of Trustees of the PFRS, A-2967-09T1, an officer’s mental disability was not obvious until shortly after the five year filing deadline, but because the date of manifestation was not until after the deadline and she filed her application within a reasonable period of time, benefits were allowed.
Hayes was a police officer for the City of Trenton on December 20, 2001 when she was called to the scene of a domestic dispute. On arrival, she found her brother, a fellow officer, had been shot in the face and neck. As she tended to her brother, shots continued. Her brother survived, but she sought counseling and missed several weeks of work. She resumed work and experienced anxiety and insomnia which she attributed to “the norm for some police personnel”. Then in late summer 2006, she learned that a local gang had a “hit” out on her for her involvement in a highly publicized shooting in 1998 resulting in the death of a 15 year old girl.
In September 2006 a seemingly inconsequential incident when she was reprimanded for not allowing a civilian employee access to her police computer, resulted in uncontrollable crying. She was placed on indefinite leave and sought medical attention for several months, but when she could no long afford the costs stopped treatment. She was advised not to continue working as a police officer and was terminated. She applied for an Accident Disability Pension on July 20, 2007. Benefits were denied as she did not apply within 5 years from the date of the triggering event. On appeal the Administrative Law Judge found that her failure to apply within the five years was due to the delayed manifestation of her disability, an exception to the filing requirements. She was unaware of the depth of her condition until May 2007 and filed within a reasonable period of time thereafter.
The court relied heavily on In re Crimaldi, 396 N.J.Super.599 (App.Div. 2007), (delayed manifestation) and Guadagno, (mental-mental disability) in reaching this result. In Guadagno, the Court actually heard 3 consolidated matters that called upon the court to determine whether the mental-mental category of injury was intended to be included in the Accidental Disability Pension statute.
The Guadagno decision came on the heels of the Court’s decision in Richardson v. Board of Trustess, PFRS, 192 NJ 189 (2007) outlining the requirements to prove a “traumatic event”. Abandoning the great rush of force definition in Kane v. Board of Trustees, PFRS, 100 NJ 651 (1985), it took on a more classic tort definition of “accident”. This standard is worth reviewing. In order to be eligible for a more lucrative accidental disability pension, a claimant must show
- That he/she is permanently and totally disabled;
- 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);
- That the traumatic event occurred during and as a result of the member’s regular or assigned duties;
- That the disability was not the result of the member’s willful negligence; and
- That the member is mentally or physically incapacitated from performing his usual or any other duty.
In Guadagno, the Court recognized that a permanent mental disability without a physical injury can qualify for an accidental disability pension if the disability resulted 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.
Corrections Officer Guadagno was ultimately awarded an accidental disability pension because the threat of death was made against him, but also against his family by an inmate who had personal knowledge of Guadagno and his family prior to his incarceration and sufficient gang related contacts on the outside to carry out the threats. Submission of prison records, affidavits of Officer Guadagno and his wife and newspaper clippings were convincing evidence that the threats were credible. Similarly in Hayes, Officer Hayes arrived on scene to find her brother, and fellow officer having been shot and injured. As she attended to her brother, the gunfire continued and she had to pull herself and her brother to safety to avoid further harm. She herself was in harm’s way.
Mental disability claims are very fact sensitive. If you believe you have suffered a permanent disability as a result of a traumatic event, and the Pension Board denies your application, it is well worth the effort to discuss the specifics of your case with our attorneys who advocated on behalf of Officer Guadagno.