Certainly the most important case of the year, the Court of Appeals decision in Walsh v. DiNapoli has clearly expanded the disability rights of Correction Officers. Admittedly, I was very concerned about this case and its potential outcome, but am ecstatic about the Court’s final, and proper, decision.
To understand the Court’s decision one must understand the language of the ¾’s statute itself. The Performance of Duty Disability (“POD”) statutes call for payment of a ¾’s disability benefit to a correction officer who becomes “permanently incapacitated by, or as the natural and proximate result of any act of any inmate or any person confined in an institution under the jurisdiction of the” Department of Corrections. Prior to 2016 the Comptroller interpreted the term “act” to require that an inmate intend to harm a Correction Officer with their “act.” In Traxler v. DiNapoli the 3rd Department found that the Comptroller’s interpretation was unreasonable and that as long as the inmates act itself was “volitional”, the resulting harm to the Correction Officer did not need to be intended. In other words, as long as the inmate intended to perform “an act” they did not need to intend to hurt the Officer. The question that was raised in Walsh v. DiNapoli was: What if the inmate’s “act” itself was not intended? Can an Officer obtain disability benefits if they are injured by an inmate’s non-intentional actions?
In Walsh an inmate was removed from a courthouse by a Correction Officer transport team due to the inmate’s unruly, and likely substance induced, behavior. Officer’s observed the inmate to be unsteady on her feet when they walked her out of the courthouse and loaded her into the transport van. Upon arriving at the correctional facility Officers instructed the inmate to exit the van. Following “one or two” steps the inmate tripped and fell out of the bus, landing on Officer Walsh and causing substantial injury to her back, neck and shoulder. Upon filing for disability benefits from the Retirement System, the Comptroller denied her claim with a finding that the occurrence described was not the “act of an inmate” because the inmate’s actions were “non-volitional.” Said another way, because the inmate did not mean to fall no inmate “act” was performed.
On appeal the Appellate Division upheld the determination denying benefits, finding that the legislative intent of the Correction Officer’s ¾’s bills was to provide disability benefits to Officer’s due to their daily interactions with violent and anti-social inmates. Therefore, if an inmate does not “intend” to perform their “act” they are acting neither violently nor anti-socially and benefits don’t apply. This is the thought process that the Court of Appeals overturned.
The Court found that the “plain meaning” of the word “act” encompasses both voluntary and involuntary actions. Where unambiguous words are used by the legislature, the courts will, and must, apply their plain meaning. Therefore, the plain meaning of the statute calls for coverage even when the inmate did not mean to perform the act. In Walsh, the inmate did not intend to fall, but her “act” of falling still affords disability coverage to Officer Walsh.
Further, and probably even more important for future appeals, the Court took issue with the Appellate Division’s interpretation regarding legislative intent. The Court notes that the legislature used broad terms such as “any act” when it wrote the ¾’s statutes. Further, the legislature was intentionally expanding disability coverage for Correction Officers when they wrote the statutes; a reading of the statute in a manner that limits that intent would undermine what the legislature was purposely doing.
While the vast majority of Correction Officers’ injuries are incurred by volitional inmate actions and not un-intended inmate actions, the Walsh decision is an excellent decision for Officers state wide. In addition to the expansion of coverage for “involuntary actions” I plan on using the language of the decision to attack other Comptroller interpretations of the Correction Officers’ 3/4’s Disability statutes. Stay tuned.