February 17, 2021

The job description of the applicant's position may have a significant role in evaluating a claim seeking accidental disability retirement benefits

The Court Officer [Petitioner] bring this CPLR Article 78 action was assigned to a criminal court. In the course of Petitioner's escorting an inmate who had become unruly during his sentencing hearing from the courtroom to a downstairs detention area, the inmate attempted to go back upstairs to the courtroom. Petitioner and two other court officers took action to restrain him. 

Petitioner was injured in the course of his efforts to restrain the inmate. He did not returned to work and applied for accidental disability retirement benefits, citing injuries to his neck, right arm, right wrist and both shoulders. Plaintiff's application was denied on the ground that the incident did not constitute an accident within the meaning of Retirement and Social Security Law [RSSL] §605-a, which decision was subsequently sustained by a Hearing Officer. Ultimately the Comptroller adopted the Hearing Officer's findings and decision and Petitioner filed a CPLR Article 78 proceeding challenging the Comptroller's determination.

The job description for the title "court officer" contains a list of "typical duties" that includes providing security in the courtroom, guarding criminal defendants while they are in the courtroom and escorting them to and from the detention area, removing disruptive individuals from the courtroom and physically restraining unruly individuals. This job description for "court officer" proved to be a key element in the Appellate Division's review of a determination of the New York State Comptroller denying a court officer's [Petitioner] application for accidental disability retirement benefits.

Point out that the applicant for disability retirement benefits bore the burden of establishing that his disability arose from an accident within the meaning of the RSSL, the Appellate Division explained that the Comptroller's determination denying such benefits will be upheld if supported by substantial evidence.* 

Although the reports of the incident submitted to the responsible human resources administrator indicated that Petitioner was injured when he and other officers were restraining an inmate attempting to return to the courtroom, Petitioner testified that he was not attempting to restrain the inmate when he was injured but that, instead, he was "a passive victim of a sudden and unexpected assault."

Here the Comptroller had credited the earlier written accounts of the incident over Petitioner's contradictory testimony at the hearing. The Appellate Division said that it would defer to the Comptroller's "credibility assessment." 

Further, said the court, as there was substantial evidence supporting the Comptroller's finding that Petitioner's injury arose out of a risk that was foreseeable and inherent in the performance of his regular employment duties rather than an accident within the meaning of RSSL, "it will not be disturbed."

* For purposes of the Retirement and Social Security Law, an accident is defined as "a sudden, fortuitous mischance, unexpected, out of the ordinary, and injurious in impact." An injury that results from the performance of ordinary employment duties and is a risk inherent in such job duties is not considered accidental"

Click HERE to access the Appellate Division's decision.

 

 

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