A court of appeal upheld the denial of an employee’s application for disability benefits because there was substantial support for the trial court’s finding that the employee failed to affirmatively show a real and measurable connection between his job and his psychiatric disability. (Valero v. Board of Retirement of Tulare County Employees’ Retirement Association, (— Cal.Rptr.3d —-, Cal.App. 5 Dist., May 01, 2012).
Joe Valero (“Valero”) worked for the County of Tulare Health and Human Services Agency (“County”) as an office assistant. After almost eight years of employment, Valero filed an application for disability in which he claimed he suffered from anxiety, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular problems caused by his interactions with angry clients that occurred more than two years before he submitted his application. The Board of Retirement of Tulare County Employees’ Retirement Association denied his application and instead granted him non-service related disability retirement.
Valero filed a petition for administrative mandamus in superior court. The superior court denied Valero’s petition because he failed to meet his burden to show a real and measurable connection between his employment and his psychiatric disability.
Valero is a member of County’s retirement association. To qualify for disability retirement pursuant to Government Code section 31720, a member’s incapacity must arise out of and in the course of his or her employment and the employment must contribute substantially to the incapacity. The statutory language and subsequent case law interpreting it mandates that “a disability applicant’s employment must contribute substantially to, or be a real and measurable part of, the employee’s permanent disability, in order to qualify for a disability retirement.”
After a retirement board makes a decision on an application, the superior court must exercise its independent judgment when it reviews the board’s administrative decision. If the superior court’s decision is appealed, an appellate court applies the substantial evidence test.
Valero asserted that his interactions with angry clients substantially contributed to his panic disorder. The trial court found that Valero failed to meet his burden to affirmatively show that there is a real and measurable connection between his employment and his psychiatric disability. On appeal, Valero “must show that his affirmative evidence was (1) ‘uncontradicted and unimpeached’ and (2) ‘of such a character and weight as to leave no room for a [trial court] determination that it was insufficient to support a finding.’” Therefore, the issue before the court of appeal was “whether the evidence compels a finding in favor of [Valero] as a matter of law.” The court of appeal concluded it did not.
Although Valero submitted four doctors’ reports to support his claim, the trial court found those “reports were not persuasive because they were based upon Valero’s undocumented and uncorroborated self-reporting about the cause of his panic attacks, and Valero’s self-reports were not credible.” Although Valero may have believed that his interaction with angry clients contributed substantially to his panic attacks, a hearing officer or judge could have concluded that the doctors’ reports based on his uncorroborated self-reporting were not persuasive.
Although Valero made more than 30 visits to the emergency room for panic attacks, only five of those visits occurred on or before his last day on the job. The medical records from the period of time when Valero alleged the incidents with the angry clients occurred made no mention of any angry clients. The records from this period of time also indicated that the disability was not caused by Valero’s job. The court concluded, “This is not a case where undisputed facts lead to only one conclusion.” Therefore, the court of appeal found substantial support for the trial court’s order and affirmed its decision.
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