On July 23, 2009, the Appellate Division decided Barbara Cannella v. Board of Trustees, The Public Employees’ Retirement System, Docket No.: A-4389-07T2. In the case, Barbara Cannella appealed the decision of the Board of Trustees of the Public Employees’ Retirement System (“Board”) denying her application for accidental disability retirement benefits under N.J.S.A. 43:15A-43.
On December 26, 2002, Cannella, a State employee working for the Division of Youth and Family Services, arrived at the parking lot designated for State employees where she was assigned to park. The parking lot was located a block from the building where she worked. As she exited her vehicle, she slipped and fell on ice, sustaining injuries.
On April 19, 2006, the Board determined that due to the injuries incurred in the fall, Cannella was permanently and totally disabled from performing her regular and assigned duties, but did not qualify for accidental disability benefits within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 43:15A-43. In order to be entitled to accidental disability retirement benefits, the statute requires that the disabling injury be “as a direct result of a traumatic event occurring during and as a result of the performance of [her] regular or assigned duties.” The Board determined that she did not meet this criterion and denied her application for accidental disability retirement benefits.
Cannella appealed and the case was sent to an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) for an administrative hearing. Following cross-motions for summary judgment, the ALJ found that because Cannella was a block away from her place of employment when she fell, she had not yet completed her commute and, as a result, the fall had not occurred “during and as a result of the performance of [her] regular or assigned duties.” As such, the ALJ granted the Board’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the appeal. By letter dated May 27, 2008, the Board adopted the Initial Decision of the ALJ and denied Cannella’s application for accidental disability retirement benefits. This appeal ensued.
The Appellate Division affirmed the Board’s determination and dismissed Cannella’s appeal. The Court indicated that Cannella had not reached her employer’s building, but still had another block to go. Moreover, she was not at the premises where she worked when she fell. At the time of her fall, she had not begun any preliminary efforts in commencement of work, but rather still had to continue her commute on foot to her workplace. According to the Court, to award accidental disability retirement benefits under these circumstances would be to significantly extend the scope of coverage. The statutory language was designed to reassert the going and coming rule present in workers’ compensation law, providing that workers were not entitled to benefits for injuries sustained while traveling to and from work. Thus, the Court held the Board’s application of the accidental disability statute to the facts of the case was consistent with the legislative intent to enforce the going and coming rule.
This case illustrates some of the crucial issues which arise during the course of a public pension appeal. Factors such as where and when an accident took place become vital in determining whether an individual qualifies for accidental disability retirement benefits under the statue. As such, it is important that you retain a highly qualified, experienced attorney should you determine to file for accidental disability retirement benefits in order to maximize your chances for recovery.