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Divided appeals court affirms disabled firefighter’s enhanced PERF benefit

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A Brownsburg firefighter is entitled to disability benefits that a trial court enhanced after an appeal from the local pension board, a divided court of appeals panel ruled Tuesday.

The appeals court ruled that Marion Superior Judge Michael Keele did not err when ruling that Paul Bryson was entitled to “level 1” disability benefits from the Indiana Professional Employees Retirement Fund. Keele’s ruling came after Bryson appealed a determination by an administrative law judge that Bryson was entitled to lesser “level 2” benefits because he had a pre-existing back condition that contributed to injuries he sustained on the job.

Chief Judge Margret Robb wrote for the majority in Indiana Public Employee Retirement Fund v. Paul Bryson, 49A04-1201-MI-2. “We conclude that a fund member who was able to perform his job duties before an on-duty injury despite having a pre-existing condition or health issue that preceded the on-duty injury, and who becomes unable to perform his job duties only after sustaining an on-duty injury, has an impairment that is the ‘direct result’ of the physical injury or injuries sustained while on duty."

Bryson’s “covered impairment is the ‘direct result’ of his three on-duty personal injuries for the purposes of Indiana Code section 36-8-8-12.5(b)(1) and the trial court did not err in setting aside PERF’s determination otherwise,” Robb wrote.

Judge Cale Bradford dissented. He wrote that the majority interpreted the statute correctly, but he disagreed that Bryson’s covered impairment met the "direct result" standard. Bradford said the record shows Bryson is unable to continue to work as a firefighter because of pain from his pre-existing condition.

“Given Bryson’s safety-sensitive position as a firefighter, this risk renders him unable to perform the duties of his employment. The record supports the conclusion that, among other things, Bryson’s work as a firefighter generally contributed to his degenerative disc disease. Therefore, he should be entitled to Class 2 coverage,” Bradford wrote. “I would reverse the trial court’s judgment and affirm the agency’s decision on these other grounds.”



 

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