Police and Firemen’s Retirement System (PFRS) Board and Accidental Disability

Slater v. Bd. of Tr., Police & Firemen’s Ret. Sys.:

Submitted by New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

         Petitioner appealed the final agency decision by the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System (PFRS) Board denying her request for accidental disability benefits and instead awarding her ordinary disability benefits. The key issue in dispute is whether petitioner’s disability is a direct result of traumatic work-related events.

Petitioner served as a corrections officer from 2000-2015. In 2006, she slipped and fell during a prison riot, which caused her to twist and injure her right ankle. She began treatment under workers’ compensation, and her doctor diagnosed her with internal derangement of the right ankle and recommended physical therapy and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication. Petitioner began reporting a popping sensation in her ankle and a consequent MRI revealed a subluxing peroneal tendon and a congenital lack of a groove in the distal fibula, which was later surgically created to provide stability to the tendon.

In April 2009, Petitioner slipped and fell again on the job; this time on her back and buttocks while assisting an inmate to get out of a vehicle. Eventually, an MRI revealed a tendon tear in petitioner’s left ankle. During surgery to repair the tendon, petitioner suffered a pulmonary embolism which rendered her unable to return to work. Petitioner applied for accidental disability benefits in July 2016. In December 2016, the Board denied her application and instead granted her ordinary disability benefits. The Board concluded that she had not been disabled by her slip and fall on the job but due to complications from surgery. Therefore, the Board rejected characterizing the surgery as work-related, and subsequently rejected an ALJ’s determination recommending granting petitioner accidental disability benefits.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has limited power in reviewing an agency’s final decision. Courts presume agency actions are valid and reasonable, and the burden is on the plaintiff to overcome that presumption. Bergen Pines Cty. Hosp. v. N.J. Dep’t of Human Servs., 96 N.J. 456, 477 (1984). Typically, an appellate court will only reverse a decision of an administrative agency if it is “arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable, or if it is not supported by substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole.” P.F. v. N.J. Div. of Developmental Disabilities, 139 N.J. 522, 529–30 (1995).

On appeal, petitioner contended that the Board erred by modifying the findings of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) and by rejecting his recommendation to award her accidental disability benefits. The court deferred to the Board’s findings and affirmed its denial of petitioner’s application for accidental disability benefits. The court ruled that the Board did not err in discounting petitioner’s expert testimony in concluding that petitioner’s second slip and fall directly caused her left ankle injury since such injury would have been present when she received emergency treatment following the fall. The court further agreed with the Board that petitioner failed to establish that her pulmonary embolism was the direct result of either of her on-the-job slip and fall accidents since the surgery was not the direct result of a work-related accident.

At Hark & Hark, we represent clients for appeals in Superior Court for issues like the present case pertaining to determining whether a petitioner’s disability is a direct result of a traumatic work-related event so that they could receive more favorable benefits as a result of their workplace injury. We work hard to ensure that our clients receive exceptional representation so that they receive the most favorable outcome as a result.

We offer payment plan options to clients financially incapable of providing full payment upfront. If you are facing a similar situation to that of the petitioner in this case, please call us to discuss the matter. At Hark & Hark, we represent clients for any case in any county in New Jersey including Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Essex, Gloucester, Mercer, Ocean, and Salem counties.

Criminal Civil Lawyer

Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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