Hearing Officer's credibility determination given "due deference" where there is conflicting evidence in the record
Matter of Buckshaw v DiNapoli, 2019 NY Slip Op 00944, Appellate Division, Third Department
The Employees' Retirement System denied the application filed by Petitioner, a police officer, for accidental disability retirement benefits based upon incidents that occurred in January 2014 and November 2014 — both of which allegedly resulted in injuries to Petitioner's left knee on the grounds that neither of the incidents constituted accidents within the meaning of Retirement and Social Security Law §363.
Petitioner appealed the System's decision and a hearing was held. The Hearing Officer sustained the System's denial of accidental disability retirement benefits, finding that the November 2014 incident did not constitute an accident.* The Comptroller adopted the Hearing Officer's findings and conclusions. Petitioner then initiated a CPLR Article 78 proceeding challenging the Comptroller's determination.
Initially the Appellate Division noted that an applicant for accidental disability retirement benefits bears "the burden of demonstrating that his or her disability arose out of an accident as defined by the Retirement and Social Security Law, and [the Comptroller's] determination in that regard will be upheld if supported by substantial evidence..... " Citing Matter of Stancarone v DiNapoli, 161 AD3d 144, the court then explained that "To be deemed accidental, an injury must not have been the result of activities undertaken in the ordinary course of [the employee's] job duties but, rather, must be due to a precipitating accidental event [that] is not a risk of the work performed."
In his written statement describing the November 2014 incident, Petitioner had indicated that he and another police officer had responded to a residential domestic call involving a mother and her agitated son. According to Petitioner's written statement, the individual struggled until he was restrained on a stretcher and placed in an ambulance for transport. Although the second police officer did not testify at the hearing, "his written statement mirrored the account of the incident set forth in [Petitioner's] written statement" -- specifically, that he and [Petitioner] attempted to restrain the still-struggling individual, whose legs thereafter became entangled with [Petitioner's] legs, resulting in an injury to Petitioner's left knee.
At the hearing, however, Petitioner described a different version of event, i.e., he alone successfully restrained the individual and his resulting injury to his left knee "stemmed not from any entanglement with the individual he was attempting to subdue but, rather, from a defect in the wall-to-wall carpeting in the residence." Further, Petitioner testified that he refused the other officer's offer of assistance because he had the individual "under complete control" prior to attempting to move him from the couch to the floor and that his injury occurred as he planted his left foot on the floor and initiated this transfer whereupon the carpeting buckled and shifted, "causing his leg to slide underneath the couch, at which point his left knee "popped."
The court opined that had Petitioner's account of the November 2014 incident as set forth in his hearing testimony been credited, the Comptroller could have reasonably had concluded constituted an accident for purposes of granting Petitioner accidental disability retirement benefits. However, said the Appellate Division, Petitioner's written statements and his oral testimony are contradictory and this presented a credibility issue for the Hearing Officer and, later, the Comptroller, to resolve.
As summarized by the Appellate Division, the Hearing Officer credited the account of the incident as set forth in Petitioner's written statement and, in so doing, reasonably concluded that Petitioner's injury resulted from restraining an unruly individual, which, in turn, constituted an inherent risk of Petitioner's employment as a police officer rather than "an accident."
Here the court gave "due deference" to the Hearing Officer's credibility determination and thus concluded that the Comptroller's determination was supported by substantial evidence and decline to disturb it. Courts typically accord "great deference" to a hearing officer's credibility determination unless the determination is found to be "irrational or unreasonable."
* A hearing was held at which Petitioner withdrew the January 2014 incident as a basis for his application for accidental disability retirement, going forward only with his claim for benefits based on the November 2014 incident. Ultimately Petitioner applied for, and was granted, performance of duty disability retirement benefits.
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