A California Court of Appeal has found that the Board of Administration of the California Public Employees' Retirement System ("CalPERS") erred when it denied a California Highway Patrol ("CHP") officer disability benefits because he was still capable of fulfilling the duties of his last assignment. Instead, the court ruled in Beckley v. Board of Administration of California Public Employees' Retirement System (November 27, 2013 (NO. A135418) --- Cal.App.4th ---), CalPERS should have considered whether the applicant was capable of performing all the required duties of a CHP officer.
Perry Beckley was a CHP officer for 23 years before receiving treatment for arm and wrist pain and multiple back injuries attributed to his job duties. In 2004, Beckley applied for and received an appointment as a Public Affairs Officer ("PAO") which consisted primarily of attending various public meetings and community events. Beckley’s assignment also involved wearing his uniform, driving a patrol car, and making occasional enforcement actions.
In 2006, chiropractors examined Beckley and concluded that he was physically unable to perform several of a list of "critical activities" required of all CHP officers, such as removing victims from accidents and physically overpowering and subduing combative subjects. Beckley retired and applied to CalPERS for disability benefits. CalPERS denied his application on the basis that he was still able to perform the duties of his last appointment as a PAO. Beckley filed suit to overturn the denial and the trial court ordered CalPERS to reverse its decision and award Beckley disability benefits. CalPERS appealed.
The California Public Employees Retirement Law ("PERL") provides that a public safety officer who becomes "incapacitated for the performance of duty as the result of an industrial disability shall be retired for disability." Citing that language and case law precedents, the appellate court ruled that CalPERS erred when it decided Beckley was not disabled because he could still perform the usual duties of a PAO, but could not perform the "critical activities" the CHP requires of all officers. The court stated that, "Tying 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 injuries."
Moreover, this approach is echoed by the language of Vehicle Code Section 2268, which requires that "any member" of the CHP "shall be capable of fulfilling the complete range of official duties ... and critical duties that may be necessary for the preservation of life and property." Beckley's disability left him incapable of meeting that requirement, the court said, regardless of his fitness to continue performing usual PAO duties.