Disability pension case for Lower Salford police officer remanded to trial court

By Nicholas Malfitano | Apr 6, 2016

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania  

HARRISBURG – Last Friday, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania reversed a trial court decision from the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas, in remanding for further proceedings a disability pension case involving a former police officer from Lower Salford Township.

Judge Patricia A. McCullough authored the Court’s opinion in this matter connected to a case involving former Lower Salford police officer Sgt. Jeffrey A. Wright against the Lower Salford Township Municipal Police Pension Fund, the Fund’s Trustees and the Lower Salford Township Board of Supervisors.

On Jan. 23, 1996, Wright suffered a knee injury while working as a police officer for the Lower Salford Township Police Department. Following knee surgery, Wright returned to sporadic duty, sometimes at full-duty capacity and sometimes at light-duty capacity. Despite Wright’s efforts to continue as a patrol sergeant, he was eventually unable to perform his job duties. At a public meeting on May 16, 2002, the Board unanimously voted to honorably discharge Wright from the police department.

On April 17, 2002, one month before Wright’s honorable discharge, the General Assembly amended the Municipal Police Pension Law, more commonly known as Act 600. The 2002 amendment, known as Act 30, added a mandatory disability pension for permanent service-connected injuries.

Act 30 stipulated payments would be set by “regulations of the governing body of the borough, town, township or regional police department and shall be calculated at a rate no less than 50 per cent of the member’s salary at the time the disability was incurred.”

On Jan. 6, 2003, just eight months after Wright’s honorable discharge, the Board amended the Lower Salford Township Municipal Code by adopting Ordinance 2003-2, which incorporated Act 30’s requirements on disability payments for permanent injuries sustained on or after April 17, 2002.

Then in May 2006, Wright filed suit against the Township defendants in the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas, seeking a disability pension calculated at 50 percent of his former salary, retroactive to May 16, 2002. The Township defendants moved for judgment on the pleadings in April 2012, and the trial court granted this motion – concluding the Township defendants were not obligated to pay Wright a disability pension and dismissing Wright’s complaint.

Wright filed his first appeal to the Commonwealth Court, who determined Wright’s honorable discharge in May 2002 post-dated the Township ordinance’s effective date on disability pension payments for permanent injuries, April 17, 2002.

The Commonwealth Court then remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings – but, the trial court instead found the date of Wright’s permanent injury as the original date of Jan. 23, 1996. Under that logic, because Wright sustained a permanent injury prior to the effective date of the ordinance, April 17, 2002, the trial court concluded that Wright was ineligible to receive a disability pension.

After having his post-trial motion for relief denied, Wright then filed a second appeal to the Commonwealth Court, contending the trial court erred in its decision.

“Upon our review of the record, there is uncontradicted evidence that Wright was totally and permanently disabled subsequent to the effective date of the ordinance. The trial court, however, failed to appreciate its legal significance,” McCullough said.

McCullough pointed to a May 6, 2002 letter from the Lower Salford Township police chief to Wright advising him that the department would honorably discharge his employment due to his inability to perform his duties.

McCullough said, “Under Pennsylvania law, the Board’s May 16, 2002 motion constituted an official, administrative ‘adjudication’ of Wright’s physical disability. The evidence of record and applicable legal principles demonstrate that…the Board’s May 16, 2002 motion to terminate was tantamount to a determination by the Board that Wright incurred a total permanent disability.”

McCullough added there was “no medical evidence, or any other evidence for that matter, to support a finding that Wright was totally and permanently disabled before the Board adjudicated him as such”, and that “the trial court erred in determining Wright did not sustain ‘permanent injury’ or ‘permanent disability’ on or after the effective date of the ordinance, April 17, 2002.”

“Having determined Wright qualifies for a disability pension…we reverse and remand to the trial court for further proceedings, namely a determination as to whether Wright meets the technical requirements – e.g., years of credited service, filing deadlines, requirements for submission of information, etc. – for benefits under the Township’s long-term disability policy, as stated in the ordinance,” McCullough said.

The appellant is represented by Blake E. Dunbar Jr. of Sullivan & Dunbar, in Blue Bell.

The appellees are represented by Joseph M. Bagley of Wisler Pearlstine, Anthony R. Sherr of Mayers Mennies & Sherr, plus E. Thomas Henefer and Todd J. Cook of Stevens & Lee in Reading.

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania case 1343 C.D. 2015

Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas case 2006-10696

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nickpennrecord@gmail.com

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