Retirement Sign.jpgRetirement for disability can be an involved, complex, and confusing process. This is especially true where the employee at issue is a local safety member.  Public agencies often ask for our counsel when an application for industrial disability retirement (IDR) is filed.  In a new case, the California Court of Appeal for the First District reaffirmed the legal standard that applies when a public employee seeks an IDR determination.

In Beckley v. Board of Administration of California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment that CalPERS had deviated from the legal standard when it denied Plaintiff Perry Beckley’s application for disability retirement.  The standard is that an applicant is entitled to an IDR as a result of incapacity from substantial performance of his/her usual duties of his/her position, and not the assignment he or she last held.

Beckley was a California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer for approximately 20 years, when, in 2003, he began to experience back problems he attributed to getting out of his patrol vehicle.  He applied for and attained the position of a public affairs officer (PAO) in 2004.  That role is not a limited duty position, and when he drove a patrol car in uniform, he was expected to undertake enforcement actions when necessary.

In 2006, the first of three chiropractors found that Beckley could not “continue in his occupation” since he is “unable to fulfill the 14 critical activities required by CHP.”  Beckley’s commanding officer sent him home.  Beckley later applied for an IDR, which was denied.  At his hearing regarding the denial of his application, he presented evidence from the three chiropractors that he was unable to perform all of the 14 critical tasks.  CalPERS’ own doctor opined that Beckley was not precluded from performing any of the 14 tasks, “although he could suffer pain or discomfort from performing them.”  CalPERS then adjudged that Beckley’s IDR application “must be measured against his usual duties as a PAO, not against the 14 critical tasks.”  Since the medical evidence submitted did not indicate that he was unable to perform his usual PAO duties, CalPERS denied the IDR application.

Beckley challenged CalPERS’ denial, asking the court to compel CalPERS to grant his application.  In this proceeding, CalPERS argued that under existing precedent, Beckley’s medical evidence must show he is substantially unable to perform the usual duties of the last assignment he held as a PAO.  The Court of Appeal disagreed, citing two reasons.

First, the Court found that, “[t]ying an applicant’s entitlement to disability retirement to his last specific assignment would tend to lead to highly inconsistent results for persons in identical job categories who suffer from identical disabilities.”  The second reason was that the California Legislature enacted Vehicle Code section 2268 after the two cases CalPERS relied upon for support were decided.  Vehicle Code section 2268 provides, in relevant part, that CHP officers “shall be capable of fulfilling the complete range of official duties … and other critical duties that may be necessary for the preservation of life and property.”  The code further provides that officers “shall not be assigned to permanent limited duty positions which do not require the ability to perform those duties.”

Here, the Vehicle Code that requires a CHP officer be able to perform the critical tasks associated with his usual position, even if in an assignment that does not require those duties.  Similarly, for those agencies with safety members who are employed as “peace officers,” the employee’s job duties include the provisions of Government Code section 1031 as a matter of law.  Government Code section 1031 requires, in relevant part, that “each class of public officer or employees declared by law to be peace officers shall be found to be free from any physical, emotional, or mental condition that might adversely affect the exercise of the powers of a peace officer.”

The Court found CalPERS applied the wrong legal standard by addressing whether Beckley could perform the usual duties of the last assignment he held.  This case serves as a reminder that safety members’ applications for disability retirement concern the applicant’s ability to perform the usual duties of the position, which may include certain statutory job functions.