On September 27, 2010, the Appellate Division decided Briane K. Washington v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen’s Retirement System, Docket No.: A-1857-08T1. In the case, Briane Washington (“Washington”), a former Essex County Correction Officer, applied for accidental disability retirement benefits as a result of an incident on February 21, 2005, when an inmate, who may have had HIV and/or AIDS, spit in his face on two separate occasions.

The Board of Trustees of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System (“Board”) found that Washington was suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) as a result of the incident and awarded him ordinary disability retirement benefits because he was permanently and totally disabled. However, the Board denied Washington’s application for accidental disability retirement benefits, concluding that he did not satisfy N.J.S.A. 43:16A-7, which requires an employee to be “permanently and totally disabled as a direct result of a traumatic event occurring during and as a result of the performance of his regular or assigned duties.”

Washington appealed the Board’s determination and was granted an administrative hearing. Based on the evidence presented, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) determined he was ineligible to receive an accidental disability pension. Specifically, the ALJ found there was no credible evidence that the inmate “was actually transmitting a life-threatening disease” and that Washington failed to satisfy the criteria set forth in Patterson for a disabling mental injury.

On appeal, Washington argued that he was entitled to an accidental disability pension because his disability resulted from “a traumatic event” on February 21, 2005. The Appellate Division rejected Washington’s contentions and affirmed the Board’s denial. Specifically, the Court found the Board correctly applied the law and its decision was supported by substantial credible evidence in the record. As such, the Court concluded that the Board’s denial was neither arbitrary, capricious, nor unreasonable.

This case illustrates the importance of a hiring an experienced attorney to assist in the filing of an application for accidental disability retirement benefits. As alluded to by the Court, the law regarding the grant of accidental disability benefits has been drastically altered over the past five (5) years. Consequently, it has become imperative for an applicant to hire an attorney who is familiar with these changes so as to ensure the application is properly considered and/or evaluated. Without doing so, one might fall short and never receive the benefits they are ultimately entitled to.