CHP Officer Gets Disability, Despite Ability to Handle Job Duties - Employment Law - California Case Law
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CHP Officer Gets Disability, Despite Ability to Handle Job Duties

How do you define disabled? It probably involves (among other things) an inability to carry out one's work duties, right? And if you have been assigned to a light-duty position, and have been able to fully perform that job's duties without limitation, you aren't disabled, are you?

If you are a California Highway Patrol officer, you might be.

The CHP requires that its officers be able to perform "14 critical tasks," including removing a 200-pound person from a vehicle and dragging him 50 feet, and subduing and handcuffing a resisting subject. Despite prior case law and CalPERS's assertion that the only duties that mattered were the ones actually performed by the person seeking disability, the court held in Officer Perry Beckley's favor, holding that the vehicle code required all CHP officers, regardless of daily duties, to be able to meet the physical standards.

Officer Perry's Limitations

In 2004, after being diagnosed by a chiropractor as suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome (from filing too many reports) and a degenerative back condition (aggravated from getting out of his patrol car), Officer Perry was transferred to a public affairs officer position. His duties there typically were light-duty, such as car seat inspections, though public affairs officers are required, on occasion, to perform active law enforcement tasks.

After he was examined again, pursuant to a 2006 workers' compensation claim, Perry's supervisors were notified that he was unable to perform the 14 critical tasks. He was sent home, and later took service retirement. This is an appeal of the denial of industrial disability retirement.

CalPERS's Stance: Daily Duties

CalPERS argued that, because Officer Perry was able to handle his duties as a public affairs officer, he does not qualify as disabled. Two cases back their assertion, Mansperger (a fish and game warden, who suffered a work-related injury to his right arm, was not disabled, despite being unable to lift or carry heavy loads, because such lifting is a "remote occurrence,") and Hosford (a CHP officer with three back injuries, and chronic pain, was not disabled, as his "usual" sergeant duties were supervisory and less physically demanding, than rank-and-file officers).

The court disagreed for two reasons: first, the determining factor in those cases was job classification, not specific assignment. (Sergeants supervise, game wardens don't lift, etc.) Perry was a CHP Officer, a classification that has certain requirements. Using his assignment would lead to inconsistencies in disability applications between departments, assignments, etc., even for officers with the same rank and classification.

If you don't buy that argument (it is a bit of a stretch, as both cases mentioned "usual duties"), Vehicle Code section 2268, passed after Mansperger and Hosford, alone makes this entire 15-page opinion superfluous:

"Any member of the apartment of the California Highway Patrol ... shall be capable of fulfilling the complete range of official duties administered by the commissioner ... and other critical duties that may be necessary for the preservation of life and property. Members of the California Highway Patrol shall not be assigned to permanent limited duty positions which do not require the ability to perform these duties."

The short version: while light-duty positions may exist in reality, per the statute, CHP can't stash away partially disabled officers in paper-pushing gigs. An officer must be fully-abled, or retired disabled.

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