As reported by the New Jersey Law Journal, the Appellate Division recently issued an opinion in the matter Westphal v. Board of Trustees, Police and Firemen’s Retirement System, which addressed certain issues associated with the filing of involuntary disability retirement applications. In the case, the Petitioner, William Westphal, appealed from the Board of Trustees’ denial of his application for accidental disability retirement benefits. Previously, Westphal was employed as a police officer and enrolled in the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System. After a fitness examination, the police department found Westphal to be totally and permanently disabled.  As such, the Township authorized the filing of an involuntary disability retirement application on his behalf.

The Division of Pensions and Benefits informed Westphal that an application had been filed on his behalf. The Division also advised him of the thirty (30) day deadline to contest the application. Westphal did not take any action to contest the application, but, instead, subsequently filed an application for accidental disability retirement benefits on his own. However, due to the pending involuntary disability benefits application, the Division declined to process his application. Thereafter, the Board of Trustees denied Westphal’s request to change his application because he had not timely contested the involuntary application filed by the Township and was otherwise statutorily ineligible to file for accidental disability retirement benefits.

On appeal, Westphal argued that he was not provided with adequate notice of the type of benefits sought by the Township on his behalf and, therefore, the Board of Trustees’ failure to consider the lack of notice rendered its decision arbitrary and capricious. The Appellate Division agreed and reversed the Board’s decision. To this end, the Court ruled that the notice of application sent to Westphal failed to notify him of the difference between involuntary ordinary disability retirement benefits and accidental disability benefits or even make clear that there were multiple types of benefits.

The Court further held that the Board would not be prejudiced by consideration of a late change request, as it had not finalized the original application. Finally, the Court held that Westphal was not statutorily disqualified from seeking accidental disability benefits because he was still employed when the original application was filed.

This holding is important because it clarifies that an employer who files an involuntary disability retirement application on an employee’s behalf should provide the employee with notice of the types of benefits being sought in the involuntary application.  The difference between the amount a public safety officer will receive for accidental disability retirement benefits as opposed to ordinary disability retirement benefits is extraordinary.  As such, if an involuntary disability retirement application is filed on your behalf, it is crucial to know what exact type of benefits are being sought.  The Court’s holding in this matter seems to confirm this fact.

As such, if you are faced with an employer seeking to file an involuntary disability retirement application on your behalf, you should contact an experienced attorney to assist you.  As this case illustrates, there are a myriad of issues that could arise and you want to ensure you receive the maximum amount you are entitled to.