New York Court of Appeals: Bitachatchi v. Board of Trustees of New York City of Police Department Pension Fund

In this case, the Court considered three consolidated appeals, each addressing a police officer that responded to provide assistance at the World Trade Center (“WTC”) following the attacks on September 11, 2001.  The three appeals included two officers who sought Accidental Disability Retirement Benefits (“ADR”), and the surviving spouse of another officer who brought a claim for line-of-duty death benefits.  The issue in all three appeals involved the application of the statutory WTC presumption.  Under this presumption, for the purpose of benefit upgrades, an officer’s disability or death, as a result of a qualifying condition, is presumed to be caused by his or her exposure at the WTC site.  The central issue presented was whether the Board of Trustees of the New York City Police Department Pension Fund (“the Board”) produced competent evidence to rebut the WTC presumption.  The Court held that the Board did not meet its burden of disproving that the officers’ disabilities or deaths were causally related to their work at the WTC.

New York City Police Department officers who become disabled may apply for one of two types of disability benefits.  Ordinary Disability Retirement Benefits (“ODR”) are comprised of a taxable pension and are payable if the officer is “‘physically or mentally incapacitated for the performance of duty and ought to be retired.’”  N.Y.C., N.Y., Administrative Code § 13-251.  Alternatively, ADR benefits include a tax-free pension of three-quarters of the officer’s salary, but require an additional showing that the officer’s disability is the “natural and proximate result of an accidental injury received in … city-service.”  N.Y.C., N.Y., Administrative Code § 13-252.  Where a police officer dies as a result of a work-related accident, the officer’s beneficiaries may recover line-of-duty death benefits equating to the officer’s full salary, as well.  Typically, the officer seeking an upgrade of benefits has the burden of presenting evidence that their benefits should be upgraded to ADR.  However, after September 11th, a new statute was enacted creating a presumption in favor of ADR benefits for those who performed rescue, recovery, or cleanup operations at specified locations.  The statute shifted the initial burden of proving that a claimant’s qualifying condition was not caused by the hazards encountered at the WTC site to the Board.

The Court determined that a decision by the Board that a disability was not caused by a service-related accident would be upheld provided it was supported by “credible evidence” in the record.  Credible evidence “is evidence that proceeds from a credible source and reasonably tends to support the proposition for which it is offered.”  Meyer v. Board of Trustees, 90 N.Y.2d 139, 147, 681 N.E.2d 382, 387, 659 N.Y.S.2d 215, 220 (1997).  The evidence must also be “evidentiary in nature and not merely a conclusion of law, nor mere conjecture or unsupported evidence.”  Id.

In the first two cases, the Court held that the presumption that the officers’ cancerous conditions were caused by their exposure at the WTC site was not rebutted by credible evidence.  Simply referencing “literature” and “copious data” without a foundation upon which the Court could review the matter was insufficient.  The Court rejected the Board’s argument that the cases should be remanded:  “[w]hen the Board fails to rebut the presumption, the WTC statute presumes causation and contemplates the award of ADR benefits—even if the claimant offers no medical proof.”  In the third case, the Board contended that petitioner’s condition was pre-existing and therefore did not qualify under the WTC statute.  Yet, the Court rejected this contention, since the Board failed to preserve the argument that the burden of proof remains with the petitioner to demonstrate that exposure aggravated or exacerbated the pre-existing condition.  The Court held that the Board could not rely on petitioner’s deficiencies to fill its own gap in proof, and therefore, failed to meet its statutory burden.

20 N.Y.3d 268, 982 N.E.2d 600, 958 N.Y.S.2d 680 (2012)

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