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.