A New Jersey state appeals court has reversed a trial court, and found that a high school softball coach, who suffered two unrelated accidents — causing two separate concussions, is eligible for accidental disability benefits.
Central to the court’s ruling was its determination that plaintiff Thomas Mulcahey became “disabled as a direct result of a traumatic event occurring during and as a result of the performance of his regular or assigned duties.” Kasper v. Bd. of Trs., Teachers’ Pension & Annuity Fund, 164 N.J. 564, 575-76, 754 A.2d 525 (2000).
Mulcahey first became an athletic coach in the Freehold Regional High School District in the fall of 1991. Two years later, the district hired him as a high school physical education teacher. He continued his duties thereafter as a coach, and, during the 2006-07 school year, the district hired Mulcahey as the head coach for the girls’ varsity softball team. Each year, the district would evaluate a coach’s performance, the evaluations were forwarded through the chain of command to the district superintendent, and before hiring coaches, the district reviewed applications whether submitted by those who had previously coached or new applicants.
The district paid coaches a stipend, which was not included as pensionable salary, and the district therefore did not deduct pension contributions from the stipend. In this case, the collective negotiations agreement between the Board of Education and the teachers’ bargaining unit established the amount of the stipend paid to Mulcahey. The district’s coaching manual contained a broad “Philosophy Statement,” which specified that the “fundamental purpose of interscholastic athletics” was, among other things, to “foster the intellectual growth of the student by supporting and reinforcing the academic program of the school.” It further stated, “functioning as a part of the educational whole, the athletic program should always be in conformity with the District’s objectives.”
A contractual responsibility of the softball coach was to supervise after-school practices. During practice on April 11, 2007 (2007 incident), Mulcahey was struck in the face by an “errant throw,” causing a concussion and fracturing the zygomatic arch of his face in three places. He also suffered herniated discs, cognitive and vision problems, depression, and anxiety. As a result, Mulcahey took leave until January 2008. Upon his return, he claimed he was unable to cope with the stresses of the job.
On March 30, 2009 (2009 incident), Mulcahey suffered a concussion when, during a physical education class, a “spiked” volleyball hit his head. Mulcahey did not return to work until October. In April 2011, he submitted an application for accidental disability benefits, claiming he was permanently disabled as a result of both incidents. He continued to coach and teach until 2014, when he left because of his asserted disability.
The TPAF Board of Trustees (Board) initially denied Mulcahey’s request for accidental disability benefits, concluding he was not “totally and permanently disabled.” In 2014, based on supplemental medical evidence, the Board partially reversed its earlier decision. It concluded Mulcahey was “totally and permanently disabled,” but it denied him accidental disability benefits.
Several appeals followed, before the final appeal led to the instant decision.
New Jersey state law provides for the following: “A traumatic event occurring during voluntary performance of regular or assigned duties at a place of employment before or after required hours of employment which is not in violation of any valid work rule of the employer or otherwise prohibited by the employer shall be deemed as occurring during the performance of regular or assigned duties.”
Intersecting with the law, the current legal question, on appeal, asks: “Is a high school teacher, paid a stipend under a separate contract to coach one of the school’s athletic teams, who becomes ‘permanently and totally disabled as a direct result of a traumatic event’ during after-school practice, eligible for accidental disability benefits because the ‘traumatic event occurred during and as a result of . . . his regular or assigned duties?”
The aforementioned Kasper is dispositive. In that case, a teacher, who routinely arrived before the official start of the school day to distribute materials requested by other teachers, was robbed and assaulted on the steps of the school. 164 N.J. at 571. The Court concluded that administrative decisions and case law interpreting “during and as a result of the performance of [the employee’s] regular or assigned duties,” N.J.S.A. 18A:66-39(c), share the recurring theme that, assuming all other statutory prerequisites are met, a worker will qualify for an accidental disability pension if he or she is injured on premises owned or controlled by the employer, during or as a result of the actual performance of his or her duties, or in an activity preparatory but essential to the actual duty. That is true whether the injury occurs during the workday or before or after hours. [Id. at 585.]
The court said that under the Act, pre-and post-workday performance of an employee’s regular or assigned duties essentially constitutes a parallel universe to the performance of those duties during the regular workday. Thus, a teacher who is required to come early or stay late for parent conferences or sports practices clearly qualifies for an accidental disability pension if she receives a disabling traumatic injury while performing those duties. [Id. at 586.]
“In short, a teacher qualifies for accidental disability benefits if he ‘is on premises controlled by the employer and [his] injury is causally connected, as a matter of common sense, to the work the employer has commissioned.’ Id. at 588.
“The Board distinguishes Kasper, contending that because Mulcahey was paid a separate stipend to coach, his injury did not occur ‘during and as a result’ of his ‘regular or assigned duties.’ The Board notes that while the 1986 amendment extended eligibility for injuries occurring before and after regular work hours, it was limited to only the ‘voluntary performance of regular or assigned duties,’ not situations, like this, where a teacher was paid a separate stipend for performing those duties. We reject the distinctions as meaningful for purposes of construing the Act under the particular facts of this case.
“There is no question that Mulcahey’s traumatic injury was ‘causally connected, as a matter of common sense, to the work the employer ha[d] commissioned.’ Ibid. Pursuant to his contract, the District hired Mulcahey to coach the girls’ varsity softball team and expected him to supervise after-school softball practice, which is what he was doing when injured. The Kasper Court did not address the exact facts presented here, nor did it exclude teachers who are paid by separate contract for supervising extra-curricular activities from eligibility. Neither the Court’s ‘soccer coach’ example, nor its interpretation of the 1986 Amendment, carved out such an exception.
“Moreover, there are several practical reasons why eligibility for accidental disability benefits should exist under these circumstances. Common experience recognizes that at the high school level, athletic coaches are routinely teachers in the same school or another school in the same district. That relationship permits the coach to interact with other educators, guidance counselors, and the like, to better serve the student and further, in this case, the District’s goal that its athletic programs be ‘part of the educational whole’ and ‘in conformity with the District’s objectives.’
“Further, in this particular case, the stipend the District paid was an item negotiated and incorporated in the parties’ collective negotiations agreement. We might assume that if teachers, who were part of a bargaining unit that negotiated an additional stipend for its members, became ineligible for accidental disability benefits by accepting that stipend, they may decline the opportunity to apply for coaching positions.
“Lastly, under the Board’s interpretation of the Act, if two teachers, one paid a stipend and the other a volunteer, are supervising after-school practice and both are injured as result by a common traumatic event, only the volunteer would be eligible for accidental disability benefits. The distinction urged by the Board compels an absurd result under those circumstances. See, e.g., Kocanowski v. Township of Bridgewater, 237 N.J. 3, 10, 203 A.3d 95 (2019) (quoting State v. Twiggs, 233 N.J. 513, 533, 187 A.3d 123 (2018)) (cautioning against literal reading of statutory language if it “yield[s] an absurd result . . . at odds with the overall statutory scheme”).”
Thomas Mulcahey v. Board Of Trustees, Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund; Super. Ct. N.J., App. Div.; DOCKET NO. A-5146-16T2, 2019 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1260 *, 2019 WL 2338495; 6/3/19
Attorneys of Record: Richard A. Friedman argued the cause for appellant (Zazzali, Fagella, Nowak, Kleinbaum & Friedman, attorneys; Richard A. Friedman, of counsel and on the briefs; Edward M. Suarez, Jr., on the briefs). Amy Chung, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for respondent (Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General, attorney; Melissa H. Raksa, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Jeff S. Ignatowitz, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).