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Haggerty v. Board of Pension Trustees of State

Supreme Court of Delaware

January 16, 2018

CHRISTIANNE M. HAGGERTY, Appellant Below, Appellant,
v.
BOARD OF PENSION TRUSTEES OF THE STATE OF DELAWARE and the DELAWARE OFFICE OF PENSIONS, Appellees Below, Appellees.

          Submitted: October 27, 2017

         Court Below-Superior Court of the State of Delaware C.A. No. N16A-08-001 (N)

          Before STRINE, Chief Justice; VALIHURA and VAUGHN, Justices.

          ORDER

          Karen L. Valihura Justice

         This 16th day of January 2018, upon consideration of the parties' briefs and the record on appeal, it appears to the Court that:

         (1) The appellant, Christianne M. Haggerty, was employed as a New Castle County police officer for more than sixteen years. On March 3, 2009, Haggerty was injured on the job during a physical encounter with a suspect. Initially, Haggerty was diagnosed with a shoulder strain and was placed on light duty, but by August 2010, recurring problems from her injury made it medically impossible for her to perform any type of police work. Her employment with the New Castle County Police Department was terminated as of October 7, 2010.

         (2) On September 2, 2010, Haggerty applied for a disability pension. By statute, the Board of Pension Trustees controls and manages the Delaware County and Municipal Police/Firefighter Pension Plan ("the Pension Plan").[1] Under the statute, the Pension Plan defines "partial disability" as a medical impairment "which renders the member unable to function as a police officer and which is reasonably expected to last at least 12 months."[2] The statute defines "total disability" as a medical impairment "which renders the member totally unable to work in any occupation for which the member is reasonably suited by training or experience, which is reasonably expected to last at least 12 months."[3]

         (3) By letter dated November 23, 2010, Haggerty was notified that she had been granted a partial disability pension effective October 10, 2010. She began receiving those benefits in December 2010. At around the same time, Haggerty also began receiving partial disability worker's compensation benefits.

         (4) Dissatisfied with the partial disability pension granted by the Pension Board, and believing that she was eligible for a total disability pension, Haggerty asked the Pension Board to reconsider her application for a disability pension. Following a comprehensive vocational assessment completed in April 2011, a two-member panel of the Pension Board held a hearing on September 14, 2011. The panel issued a written report recommending that Haggerty's request for a total disability pension be denied. The panel's report and recommendation was adopted as a final decision of the Pension Board.

         (5) Haggerty appealed the Pension Board's decision to the Superior Court. Haggerty argued that the Board failed to consider medical records supporting her request for a total disability pension, including medical records establishing that her condition had worsened since her original application. The Board responded that it properly denied Haggerty's request for a total disability pension on the basis of the vocational assessment and that, under the Pension Plan statute, the Board was not authorized to consider evidence that Haggerty's condition had worsened since she was originally determined to be eligible for a disability pension.

         (6) When deciding Haggerty's appeal from the Pension Board's decision, the Superior Court ruled in part for the Board and in part for Haggerty. In its order dated July 20, 2012, the court found no error in the Pension Board's procedures to determine a member's eligibility for a disability pension, including the Board's determination that, under the Pension Plan statute, it could not consider evidence that a member's condition had worsened after the member was originally determined to be eligible for a disability pension.[4] Noting that the legislature, not the court, is the proper forum for changing the language of a statute, the Superior Court explained that "[a]s unfair as this may seem to Haggerty and any other service-member faced with a degenerative condition caused by a work-related injury, this Court is not the proper forum for relief."[5] The Superior Court reversed the Pension Board's decision, however, and remanded the matter for further proceedings after finding that the Board had not considered any of the medical evidence submitted by Haggerty, including evidence that might have been relevant to determining whether, at the time she applied for a disability pension, she was totally disabled under the Pension Plan statute.

         (7) On remand, a panel of the Pension Board held a hearing on November 13, 2013. In the sixteen-month interval between the July 2012 remand order and the November 2013 hearing, Haggerty underwent spinal fusion surgery. Following the surgery, Haggerty's worker's compensation case was reopened, and she was awarded total disability worker's compensation benefits.

         (8) Following the hearing in November 2013, the panel issued a report again recommending that Haggerty's request for a total disability pension be denied. The panel's report and recommendation was adopted as a final decision of the Board.

          (9) Haggerty appealed the Pension Board's decision to the Superior Court, arguing, in relevant part, that the Board had not complied with the Superior Court's July 20, 2012 order directing the Board to consider the medical evidence she submitted. According to Haggerty, the Pension Board arbitrarily discounted some of her medical reports simply because the information in the medical reports was presented on forms prepared for and submitted in her worker's compensation case. In response, the Board argued that it gave appropriate weight to the information in Haggerty's worker's ...


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