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Simons v. New York City Employees' Retirement System

Supreme Court, Kings County

June 14, 2018

Ebony Simons, Petitioner,
v.
New York City Employees' Retirement System and THE CITY OF NEW YORK, Respondents.

          Attorneys for Petitioner Bernard C. Han, Esq.

          Attorneys for Respondent Zachary W. Carter Corporation Counsel of the City of New York

          KATHERINE A. LEVINE JUSTICE.

         Recitation, as required by CPLR 2219(a), of the papers considered in the review of this motion:

Papers

Numbered

Notice of Petition with Accompanying Affidavits and Exhibits

1

Respondent's Verified Answer to Petition with Accompanying Affidavits and Exhibits

2

Respondent's Memorandum of Law

3

Petitioner's Reply Memorandum of Law

4

Respondent's Sur-Reply Memorandum of

5

         This case addresses the issue of whether a correction officer who becomes disabled due to an assault by a visitor to the correctional facility is entitled to performance of duty disability retirement benefits ("disability benefits") pursuant to Retirement and Social Security Law ("RSSL") § 507-c. Petitioner Ebony Simons ("petitioner" or "Simons"), a correction officer employed by the NYC Department of Corrections ("DOC"), seeks an order annulling the determination of the Board of Trustees ("Trustees") of the New York City Employees' Retirement System ("NYCERS"), which denied her application for disability benefits pursuant to RSSL § 507-c.

         Petitioner, who worked at the Ana M. Kross Center, a correctional facility on Rikers Island (the "Facility"), applied for disability benefits based upon injuries sustained when on multiple occasions in 2012 and 2013, she was assaulted by visitors to the Facility. The Medical Board of NYCERS deemed petitioner disabled based solely on an injury to her ankles which occurred on November 20, 2013, when she was assaulted by a visitor while attempting to confiscate contraband. However, the Medical Board recommended that petitioner's application for disability benefits be denied because incidents perpetrated by visitors do not fall within the aegis of RSSL § 507-c, "despite the fact that the applicant was assigned to a visitors' area." Petitioner appealed the recommendation, and the Trustees adopted a resolution denying her application for disability benefits.

         RSSL § 507-c provides that correction officers employed by the DOC who become "physically or mentally incapacitated for the performance of duties as the natural and proximate result of an injury, sustained in the performance or discharge of his or her duties by, or as a natural and proximate result of, an act of any inmate or any person confined in an institution under the jurisdiction of the department of correction... shall be paid a performance of duty disability retirement allowance equal to three-quarters of final average salary."

         Petitioner claims that the Trustees' decision was erroneous as a matter of law, and arbitrary and capricious because the visitor assailant shed his status as visitor and became confined when he assaulted petitioner and was arrested. Respondent argues that this provision is inapplicable since the attacker was a visitor rather than an inmate, and that petitioner is therefore not entitled to disability benefits under RSSL § 507-c. Petitioner contends that the visitor was a "confined" person since he was not free to leave the Facility once he was arrested for assaulting petitioner, in effect arguing that his "confined" status was retroactive to the time he entered the Facility. Petitioner further argues that a strict construction of the statute would defeat its purpose to "protect the officer due to inherent dangers that the officer would face on a daily basis while working as a correctional officer."

         As a threshold matter, a correction officer applying for disability benefits bears the burden of establishing that her incapacity was the "natural and proximate result" of a "direct interaction with an inmate." See, Mtr. of Stevens v DiNapoli, 155 A.D.3d 1294, 1294-1295 (3d Dept. 2017) (to qualify for performance of duty disability retirement benefits under RSSL § 507-b(a), which contains identical statutory language to RSSL § 507-c(a), correction officer must make threshold showing that injuries were result of "direct interaction with an inmate"); Mtr. of Boyd v New York City Employees' Retirement Sys., 2018 NY Slip Op 28073, 2018 NY Misc. LEXIS 768, *7 (Sup. Ct. Kings. Co. 2018, J. Levine). This Court finds that petitioner has not made this threshold showing because the alleged perpetrator was not an inmate.

         RSSL § 507-c does not address incapacities which result from acts of visitors, or define what it means to be "confined." However, the legislative histories of RSSL §§ 507-b and 607-c, which apply to correction officers employed by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision and county-employed correction officers, respectively, and which contain identical statutory language to RSSL § 507-c, do shed light on this term. These three sections relate to the same subject matter and are deemed to be "in para materia," i.e. that they are to be "construed together as though forming part of the same statute." Khela v. Neiger, 85 N.Y.2d 333, 336 (1995); Mtr. of London Terrace Assoc. L.P. v. New York State Div. of Hous. & Community Renewal, 35 Misc.3d 525, 534 (Sup. Ct. NY Co. 2012). The Court therefore looks to these statutes to divine the meaning of the term "confined."

         The legislative history of section 507-b reveals that "the statute was clearly intended to compensate correction officers who, because of the risks created by their daily contact with certain persons who are dangerous [and] profoundly anti-social... become permanently disabled." Mtr. of Laurino v DiNapoli, 132 A.D.3d 1057, 1058 (3rd Dep't 2015); Mtr. of Boyd v NYCERS, 2018 NY Slip Op 28073, 2018 NY Misc. LEXIS 768, *7 (Sup. Ct. Kings Co. 2018). The legislative history of § 607-c reveals that the increased inmate population "created strain and tension, manifesting itself in an increase in altercations among inmates and between inmates and correction officers," and that "restraining combative and unruly inmates is the type of activity that was intended to trigger the protections afforded correction officers" by § 607-c. Mtr. of Naughton v. DiNapoli, 127 A.D.3d 137, 140 (3d Dept. 2015). Thus, it is clear that the legislature did not intend that contact between visitors and correction officers trigger § 507-c protection. Furthermore, visitors are not expected to be "dangerous" and "profoundly anti-social."

         Based on the above, there is no basis upon which to confer a "confined" status on a visitor upon his entrance to the Facility and before he assaulted the officer which resulted in his arrest. Petitioner's argument that the legislature intended to "protect the officer due to inherent dangers that the officer would face on a daily basis while working as a correctional officer" also has no sound basis. Section 507-c does not provide disability benefits based upon risks of the job that are not related to direct interaction with inmates, and therefore cannot be interpreted in such a broad manner. Mtr. of Park v DiNapoli, 123 A.D.3d 1392, 1393 (3d Dept. 2014).

         An agency's determination will not be deemed arbitrary and capricious if it has evaluated the facts using a standard which is expressly set forth in the statute. See, James v. Been, 55 Misc.3d 631, 633 (Sup. Ct. Kings Co. 2017, J. Levine). Since respondent adhered to language and intent of RSSL ยง 507-c, this Court finds that its determination denying petitioner disability benefits had a sound basis, and was not arbitrary and ...


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