PORTLAND, Maine (Legal Newsline) – The Maine Supreme Judicial Court affirmed a decision made by the Maine Public Employees Retirement System (MPERS) board of trustees (the board) denying a teacher’s disability retirement application earlier this month.
In a 5-to-1 decision issued April 11, the court determined Elizabeth Jalbert had failed to meet the burden of proof to overturn the board’s decision disqualifying her from being awarded the benefits.
Jalbert, a 24-year veteran teacher of Regional School Unit No. 1, applied to MPERS for disability retirement benefits on February 2013, after two separate accidents resulted in head injuries. Jalbert was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She had initially filed for benefits due to her struggling with depression and anxiety in 2004, but withdrew her application the following year and continued to teach in spite of her disorder.
Although there were differing opinions from medical experts to the extent of her head trauma, her injuries compounded with her mental illness caused a neurologist to diagnose her with “post-concussion syndrome exacerbated by her pre-existing anxiety and depression," according to court records.
After her diagnosis, Jalbert was absent from work for most the 2011-2012 school year. When she returned, her duties were modified to accommodate her condition. However, she was placed on leave in September 2012 due to her primary physicians’ orders.
While on leave, she continued to see a number of different medical experts seeking opinions and treatment for tinnitus, dizziness and her vision. Ultimately, the school officials refused to further accommodate her and she left her position April 10, 2013.
Jalbert had filed her application stating the aforementioned syndrome, depression and anxiety had affected her ability to teach. In reviewing her application, the board denied her claim prompting her file a prior appeal.
The case went before a hearing officer who combed through a copious amount of evidence -- testimonies of colleagues, her neurologist and her daughter and medical records. As well as against her i.e. reports from the MPERS’ medical board released in May 2014, which while not submitted as evidence, were presented to the hearing officer and had stated their disapproval.
The hearing officer submitted Jalbert’s appeal to the board’s executive director who, after deliberating with MPERS’ medical board, had decided the evidence provided failed to establish a connection between her work performance and her medical issues. Afterward, the decision was left to the hearing officer, who affirmed the original ruling.
According to the court documents, the main reasons for this decision were Jalbert’s tests showing minimal impairment to her cognitive faculties; her doctors' inability to explain her post-concussion syndrome sufficiently; and the disability claims she made in 2004 were nearly identical to her current claims.
The board’s original ruling stood firm, leading to another appeal and judgment by the Supreme Judicial Court.
The court's justices ruled in favor of the board’s ruling to deny Jalbert’s benefits application. To qualify for benefits, Jalbert had to prove her condition was life-long and made it impossible to work as a teacher. Her medical and cognitive assessment reports counter the board’s guidelines as justices determined the reports had either alluded towards her recovery or discounted the severity of her past injuries.
Jalbert had challenged both the board’s and the hearing officer’s opinions of her eligibility and the inclusion of the May 2014 reports stating both had erred in its decisions. However, according the court documents, under Title 5 M.R.S. § 17106(4) (2016) MPERS must take into account the opinions of the medical board when determining eligibility. Although the May 2014 reports were not submitted as evidence instead shown to hearing officer, the officer had little recourse.
The justices also stated according to 5 M.R.S. § 17106-A(3), It is the hearing officer’s authority to determine the weight of submitted evidence which may include medical evidence. The justice found the denial of Jalbert’s application was fair due to board and by extension the hearing officer’s abilities to deny by assessment of the evidence submitted.
Not all the justices agreed though, as Associate Justice Joseph Jabar dissented from the majority stating the evidence provided does not support the hearing officer’s opinion and had accused the officer of ignoring expert witness testimonies.
“The hearing officer, acting as a fact-finder, was free to disregard evidence presented by Jalbert. However, where numerous medical experts unanimously concurred that she is disabled and suffers functional limitations on account of that disability, and the System did not present any expert testimony to refute this evidence,7 disregarding these opinions was arbitrary,” Jabar stated in his opinion.