On January 27, 2010, the Appellate Division decided Gregory Russo v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen’s Retirement System, Docket No.: A-3706-08T2. In the case, Gregory Russo appealed from the March 10, 2009 final determination of the Board of Trustees of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System (“Board”) denying his application for accidental disability benefits.

On November 29, 2001, during his first year as an officer for the Montclair Police Department, Russo was dispatched to the scene of a residential fire with three other officers. They entered the burning building, determined that there were four residents inside and escorted two children and an adult to safety from the first floor. They could hear a fourth person calling for help from the second floor and tried to reach him, but could not safely proceed upstairs because of the fire’s rapid advance. As they were attempting to rescue the fourth occupant, local fire department personnel entered the building and ordered the police officers to leave. The man on the second floor died as a result of the fire.

After being evacuated from the residence, Russo witnessed the fire department removing the fourth occupant’s body through a window and was verbally berated by the man’s family for not doing enough to rescue him. The officers were taken to the local emergency room to be treated for smoke inhalation and were released the following morning. As a result of this traumatic event, Russo was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The initial decision of an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) who considered the matter, issued on November 6, 2008, found that Russo met the standard for receipt of accidental disability benefits. The ALJ found that Russo was eligible because he considered the reasonable person test to be “fully satisfied under the known facts of this case.” In contrast, the Board, although it adopted the ALJ’s factual findings, rejected the ALJ’s legal conclusions and denied Russo’s application. This appeal ensued.

The Appellate Division determined that it was constrained to agree with the Board in light of the substantial deference afforded to an administrative decision. According to the Court, none of the four officers who responded to the fire suffered any injuries beyond the smoke inhalation for which Russo was treated. Moreover, the Court noted that although the sight of the lifeless body of the fourth occupant of the burning building being removed was no doubt traumatic, police officers are trained to deal with injured and dead citizens under a multitude of horrific circumstances, including homicides, automobile accidents and natural disasters. Russo’s trauma was further compounded by being verbally berated by the surviving family members. However, the Court found that circumstance, in and of itself, does not constitute a traumatic event. Therefore, the Court agreed with the Board’s conclusion to deny Russo’s application for accidental disability retirement.

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Photo of Donald C. Barbati Donald C. Barbati

Donald C. Barbati is a shareholder of Crivelli, Barbati & DeRose, L.L.C. His primary practice revolves around the representation of numerous public employee labor unions in various capacities to include contract negotiation, unfair labor practice litigation, contract grievance arbitration, and other diverse issues…

Donald C. Barbati is a shareholder of Crivelli, Barbati & DeRose, L.L.C. His primary practice revolves around the representation of numerous public employee labor unions in various capacities to include contract negotiation, unfair labor practice litigation, contract grievance arbitration, and other diverse issues litigated before the courts and administrative tribunals throughout the State of New Jersey. In addition, Mr. Barbati also routinely represents individuals in various types of public pension appeals, real estate transactions, and general litigation matters. He is a frequent contributor to the New Jersey Public Safety Officers Law Blog, a free legal publication designed to keep New Jersey public safety officers up-to-date and informed about legal issues pertinent to their profession. During his years of practice, Mr. Barbati has established a reputation for achieving favorable results for his clients in a cost-efficient manner.

Mr. Barbati has also handled numerous novel legal issues while representing New Jersey Public Safety Officers. Most notably, he served as lead counsel for the Appellants in the published case In re Rodriguez, 423 N.J. Super. 440 (App. Div. 2011). In that case, Mr. Barbati successfully argued on behalf of the Appellants, thereby overturning the Attorney General’s denial of counsel to two prison guards in a civil rights suit arising from an inmate assault. In the process, the Court clarified the standard to be utilized by the Attorney General in assessing whether a public employee is entitled to legal representation and mandated that reliance must be placed on up-to-date information.

Prior to becoming a practicing attorney, Mr. Barbati served as a judicial law clerk to the Honorable Linda R. Feinberg, Assignment Judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Mercer Vicinage. During his clerkship Mr. Barbati handled numerous complex and novel substantive and procedural issues arising from complaints in lieu of prerogative writs, orders to show cause, and motion practice. These include appeals from decisions by planning and zoning boards and local government bodies, bidding challenges under the Local Public Contract Law, Open Public Records Act requests, the taking of private property under the eminent domain statute, and election law disputes. In addition, Mr. Barbati, as a certified mediator, mediated many small claims disputes in the Special Civil Part.

Mr. Barbati received a Bachelor of Arts degree in history, magna cum laude, from Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Upon graduating, Mr. Barbati attended Widener University School of Law in Wilmington, Delaware. In 2007, he received his juris doctorate, magna cum laude, graduating in the top five percent of his class. During law school, Mr. Barbati interned for the Honorable Joseph E. Irenas, Senior United States District Court Judge for the District of New Jersey in Camden, New Jersey, assisting on various constitutional, employment, and Third Circuit Court of Appeals litigation, including numerous civil rights, social security, and immigration cases.