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April 6, 2011

If substantial evidence supports the appointing authority’s denial of GML §207-a benefits, it must be sustained

If substantial evidence supports the appointing authority’s denial of GML §207-a benefits, it must be sustained
Matter of Ridge Rd. Fire Dist. v Schiano, 2011 NY Slip Op 02720, Court of Appeals

Kevin Nowack, a firefighter employed by the Ridge Road Fire District, claimed to have sustained a back injury while on duty.

Ultimately the arbitrator concluded that the District's denial of Nowack's §207-a benefits was not supported by substantial evidence.

The District appealed the arbitrator's determination and Supreme Court granted the District's petition, vacated the arbitrator’s decision and reinstated the District's original decision denying Nowack application for §207-a benefits.

Supreme Court held that the hearing officer's decision was arbitrary and capricious, and noted that the District's determination denying benefits "was supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole despite the fact that there was conflicting medical evidence to support a contrary result."

The Appellate Division reversed the Supreme Court’s determination and dismissed the Fire District’s petition, holding that the District's "denial of benefits, which was based on the determination that the disability was solely related to a prior non-work-related injury, [was] not supported by substantial evidence."

The Court of Appeals reversed the Appellate Division’s decision.

The court said that the parties here agree that under the relevant statute and collective bargaining agreement, the District's denial of benefits had to be upheld if substantial evidence* supported it. Accordingly, said the Court of Appeals, “the independent hearing officer was required to give deference to the District's decision and Nowack bore the burden of establishing that the District's denial determination had not been supported by substantial evidence.”

Viewing this record as a whole, the Court of Appeals held that “Supreme Court correctly held that the hearing officer's decision, i.e. that the District's denial of section 207-a benefits was not based on substantial evidence, was arbitrary and capricious.”

Further, said the court, “It is of no consequence that the record also indicates that there was evidence supporting Nowack's contention.” While frequently there is substantial evidence on both sides, the Court of Appeals explained that the applicable standard here was whether the District's denial of benefits was supported by substantial evidence.

In this instance, said the court, there is unquestionably substantial evidence supporting both sides' positions. Accordingly “the hearing officer acted arbitrarily in deciding that none supported the District's” position.

* Court of Appeals noted that it had defined "substantial evidence" as such relevant proof as a reasonable mind may accept as adequate to support a conclusion or ultimate fact, and "is less than a preponderance of the evidence, overwhelming evidence or evidence beyond a reasonable doubt."

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

http://www.courts.state.ny.us/reporter/3dseries/2011/2011_02720.htm

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