At 2 a.m. on Jan. 12, 2010, James Moran was dispatched to the house, which was boarded up and appeared to be unoccupied. As he was preparing to prevent the fire from spreading, he heard screams coming from inside the building. The truck company, which was equipped and prepared to forcefully enter the home, had not yet arrived on scene. As a result, Moran used his shoulder, leg and back to push through the front door, allowing two people to be rescued from the burning building. Moran said during hearings that the two would have died had he not entered the building.
More than a year after the incident, Moran applied to the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System seeking an accidental disability retirement pension for the injuries he sustained while rescuing the two men. The pension board, however, ruled that Moran did not meet one of the criteria for such a pension, specifically that his injuries were not the result of a traumatic event that is “undesigned and unexpected.” The board instead awarded him an ordinary disability pension benefits. An Administrative Law Judge sided with Moran and recommended accidental disability, but the board rejected the findings, stating, “simply kicking in a door or intentionally using one’s back to force entry does not constitute an ‘unexpected happening.'” The board also found the actions to be within the normal scope of his job.
However, in this instance, the three-judge Appellate Panel agreed with the Administrative Law Judge’s findings and reversed the Board of Trustee’s denial of the accidental disability pension, ruling that it took too narrow a view of the law. “The undesigned and unexpected event here was the combination of unusual circumstances that led to Moran’s injury: the failure of the truck unit to arrive, and the discovery of victims trapped inside a fully engulfed burning building, at a point when Moran did not have available to him the tools that would ordinarily be used to break down the door,” Judge Susan Reisner wrote on behalf of the panel.
The panel also criticized the board for its “backhanded” criticism of Moran in its reference to him deviating from training in failing to use the ax on the truck to open the door. Moran’s Captain testified that he did not have access to the ax at the time he needed it.
All too often we see the Board of Trustees for the various Public Employment Retirement Systems misapply the well settled case law that pertains to disability retirement benefits and deny applicants either the accidental or ordinary disability retirement pensions that they are entitled too. When an applicant believes that he or she has been subjected to a wrongful and/or unwarranted decision from a pension board, they should immediately seek the advice of counsel to discuss the possibility of appealing the decision. However as we have stated in the past, there are very few attorneys in the State of New Jersey that specialize in public employment pension appeals, and therefore, to increase an applicant’s chance of receiving these life time benefits, they must seek out the services of these experienced practitioners.