ALBANY, N.Y. (Legal Newsline) – The New York Court of Appeals on Nov. 25 reversed a lower court's decision and concluded that an injury to a corrections officer while transporting a prisoner did qualify for performance-of-duty disability benefits because it was an accident and not deliberate.
Judge Paul Feinman and his colleagues ruled the Appellate Division erred in basing its decision on the word “act” contained in the law – the idea that only the will of an inmate or a deliberate act of disobedience applied – when it denied benefits.
“The term ‘any act of any inmate’ is not defined in the Retirement and Social Security Law,” Feinman wrote.
Feinman found that “any act of any inmate” applied in the case to include an accident, reversed the Appellate Division decision and remanded the case back to that body for further proceedings.
On March 19, 2012, the opinion states Nassau County correction officer Patricia Walsh and correction officer Thomas Cocchiola were directed to transport a female inmate from a New York court to the Nassau County Jail.
The officers escorted the inmate, who was handcuffed and weighed 200 pounds, from a basement area up to a garage. According to the opinion, the inmate was not steady on her feet and the officers assisted her as she walked. The officers led the woman to a police transport van and helped her maintain her steps as she climbed up into the van.
Upon arriving at the jail, the opinion states Walsh opened the back of the van and instructed the prisoner to exit. The inmate took a few steps forward then fell out of the van head first, causing Walsh to fall with her. Cocchiola and other officers lifted the inmate off Walsh and she was taken to a hospital. She sustained a torn rotator cuff, cervical spine and lower back injuries as a result of the incident.
Walsh applied for disability benefits under the Retirement and Social Security Law. The New York State Comptroller and New York State Local Employees’ Retirement System denied the application on the grounds that the alleged cause of disability was not a result of an act by an inmate or person confined in an institution.
A hearing officer determined “Altercations between inmates and officers resulting in injuries to correction officers, were the impetus for the legislation action cited," the opinion states.
The officer concluded the accident instead was a mishap caused by Walsh failing to carefully execute removal of the prisoner from the van.
Walsh appealed the judgement through Article 78 of the Civil Practice Laws and Rules (CPLR), which allows challenging a determination of an administrative agency. The matter went to the Appellate Division where the finding was confirmed and the petition from Walsh denied.
Judge Jenny Rivera disagreed with the majority opinion on the matter. She wrote that Walsh's request for performance-of-duty benefits were properly denied because the inmate's fall was accidental and not the result of an "act of an inmate."
"I would affirm the Appellate Division because the comptroller’s decision is not irrational, or based on an erroneous determination of law, and there is record support for the comptroller’s conclusion that any disability was not the result of an act of an inmate within the meaning of RSSL 607-c (a)," she wrote.