‘Yellow Bar Teasing’ Not Traumatic Enough For Trooper’s Disability Claim

Michael Buccilli became a member of the New Jersey State Police in March 2002. On April 19, 2005, Buccilli went to the State Police shooting range to complete firearms qualification. Buccilli arrived in his Class B uniform, on which he had sewn a yellow bar that was only to be worn on his Class A uniform. At the time, Buccilli was not aware that the yellow bar was not supposed to be worn on his Class B uniform.

Throughout the day, Buccilli was teased by a sergeant and several troopers about being “out of uniform.” Trooper Michael Stonnell called the Bass River station, to which he and Buccilli were then assigned, to joke about the incident with other troopers assigned there.

On April 22, following his annual physical examination, Buccilli reported to the Bass River station to complete a training program. When Buccilli arrived at his locker, he noticed several yellow pieces of paper, about the size of the yellow bar he had sewn onto his uniform, taped to his locker. He concluded they were placed there by his fellow troopers as a joke, and threw them away. When Buccilli went to a computer at the station to sign in, he noticed comments next to his name in the computer system stating that he was “sewing [the yellow] bars on his civilian clothes.” Buccilli continued to believe that the pieces of paper and remarks were intended as jokes, but would have preferred that nothing had been entered in the computer system. Buccilli next went to his mailbox, where he found more yellow pieces of paper. He threw them away and proceeded to work on his training module.

When Buccilli returned to the locker room, he noticed that more imitation yellow bars had been placed on the bench near his locker. He opened his locker, which had a previously-broken lock, to find that someone had used what appeared to be “yellow-out” correction fluid to paint a yellow bar on his Class A uniform.

Buccilli began to experience problems at work with his co-workers and supervisors. While on patrol the night of June 3, Buccilli suffered a panic attack. He testified that he feared for his safety, particularly because he was afraid that his fellow troopers would not provide him with backup in the event he needed it.

In February 2006, Buccilli received a letter informing him that he would not be reenlisted as a State Trooper. Buccilli then applied for accidental disability benefits. When his request was denied, he appealed through the court system.

An appeals court rejected Buccilli’s claim. The Court found that to receive accidental disability benefits, a public safety officer must establish that he is permanently and totally disabled as a direct result of a traumatic event, and that the disability must result from direct personal experience of a terrifying or horror-inducing event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury.

The Court found that “even giving Buccilli the benefit of every favorable inference from the underlying facts, there can be no question that he failed to demonstrate that his disability resulted from direct personal experience of a terrifying or horror-inducing event that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a similarly serious threat to his physical integrity. None of the events upon which Buccilli relies come close to satisfying that requirement. In addition, Buccilli’s unrealized fear that he could find himself facing such a situation without the support of his fellow troopers does not suffice. The direct personal experience of a terrifying or horror-inducing event must be an actual event, rather than an anticipated event that has never actually taken place.”

Buccilli v. Board of Trustees, 2012 WL 2401696 (N.J. Super.A.D. 2012).