December 17, 2010

Determining on-duty status

Determining on-duty status
Cossifos v NYSERS, 275 AD2d 879

Clearly an individual who is disabled in the course of performing his or her duties may be eligible for accidental disability retirement benefits provided by a public retirement system of this state as a result of his or her being injured while on-duty. The critical issue to be determined in considering such claims, however, is whether or not the disabled employee was at work within the meaning of the statute providing for such benefits when he or she suffered the injury.

In the Cossifos case, the question to be resolved was whether an employee who was injured while eating lunch at the worksite was engaged in performing his or her duties for the purpose of eligibility for disability retirement benefits under the Retirement and Social Security Law.

Alexander Cossifos, a senior court officer, was eating his lunch in the court’s locker room when another court officer accidentally caused one of the lockers to fall on him. He applied for accidental disability retirement benefits.

The New York State Employees’ Retirement System [ERS] rejected his application for accidental disability retirement. It said that Cossifos was not working when he was injured and therefore he was ineligible for such benefits. In the words of ERS, Cossifos was on his off-duty lunch break at the time of the accident and was therefore not in service when his injuries were sustained.

Cossifos sued, only to have his appeal dismissed by the Appellate Division. The court said that there was substantial evidence in the record to support ERS’ determination. Among the facts relied upon by ERS in making its determination:

1. Cossifos’ lunch break varied from 45 minutes to two hours, at the discretion of the court.

2. Cossifos was permitted to leave the courthouse during his designated lunch period, provided that he returned to duty at the time indicated by the court.

3. There was nothing in the record to support Cossifos’ claim that he was performing his job duties during his lunch break.

4. Cossifos was not paid for the period of time he spent eating lunch and that his presence in the courthouse during his break was not required by his employment.

The Appellate Division concluded under these circumstances there was no basis to disturb ERS’ determination that Cossifos was not in service at the time of the accident and, thus he was not entitled to accidental disability retirement benefits.

The decision also notes that “[t]he fact that [Cossifos] was within the confines of the employer’s premises at the time of the injury and could have been summoned to assist in a work-related matter while he was on his lunch break does not warrant a contrary finding.”

Smith v City of Rochester, 255 AD2d 863, however, sets out one significant exception to the general rule that eating lunch is not work. Smith, decided by the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, involved a workers’ compensation claim.

Donna Smith, a city-parking monitor, challenged the denial of her claim for workers’ compensation as a result of her slipping on a wet floor while leaving a restaurant during her unpaid lunch break. The Workers’ Compensation Board ruled that Smith’s fall did not constitute an accidental injury in the course of her employment.

The Appellate Division affirmed the board’s determination, holding that lunchtime injuries are generally deemed to occur outside the scope of employment except under limited circumstances where the employer continues to exercise authority over the employee during the lunch break.

In another injury at the worksite case, Crockett v Safir, 269 AD2d 227, Appellate Division, First Department, the court rejected New York City police officer Donna Crockett’s claim that she suffered a line-of-duty injury when a mirror fell and injured her while she was brushing her teeth in the ladies’ room of a police building. The court sustained the police commissioner’s ruling that Crockett was not actually employed in discharging the orders of a superior officer at the time of the accident, as required by the statute.

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