Officer’s Ability To Perform As Public Affairs Officer Does Not Invalidate Disability Status

Perry Beckley was a California Highway Patrol officer. In 2003, he sought treatment for wrist and arm pain, which he believed were the result of processing an unusually large number of reports at work. Later in 2003, Beckley reported that he had hurt his back getting out of his state vehicle. While he was assigned to patrol duty later that year, he had flare-ups of his back condition, was diagnosed with lumbar disc degeneration and sciatica, and was taken off work temporarily on several occasions in 2003 and 2004.

In 2004, Beckley applied for a position as a Public Affairs Officer. The duties of the position included meeting with local legislators, city managers, and community leaders; speaking to community groups; community outreach programs such as child car seat inspections; and attending community fairs. Beckley would typically drive a patrol car and wear a uniform when attending outreach events. He was not assigned a beat to patrol, but when driving in a patrol car in uniform, he was expected to undertake ordinary enforcement actions, and did so on a number of occasions.

In 2006, Beckley was evaluated by a chiropractor, Dr. Erich Parks, in connection with a workers’ compensation claim. Dr. Parks concluded that, as a result of his injuries to his upper extremities and lower back, Beckley could not “continue in his occupation since he has preclusions which cause him to be unable to fulfill the 14 critical activities required by CHP of officers.” The State reviewed the chiropractor’s report, informed Beckley’s commanding officer that Beckley “could not perform the 14 critical tasks,” and instructed the commanding officer to “send Beckley home.” The commanding officer did so. Beckley asked if he could continue to work as a PAO, and was told he could not do so because CHP officers had to be able to perform the 14 critical tasks at any time. Beckley was sent home on leave, and later took service retirement.

Beckley applied for industrial disability retirement, but was turned down on the grounds that his application for disability retirement “must be measured against his usual duties as a PAO, not against the 14 critical tasks” and that there was no medical evidence Beckley was unable to perform his usual duties as PAO either when he applied for disability. Beckley challenged the denial in the California Court of Appeals.

The Court sided with Beckley. The Court held that “our cases do not hold that the usual duties of a job should be measured only by the applicant’s last job assignment. Instead, duties should be measured in terms of the job classification the applicant held. This approach makes sense: Tying an applicant’s entitlement to disability retirement to his last specific assignment would tend to lead to highly inconsistent results for persons in identical job categories who suffer from identical disabilities.

“CalPERS acknowledges that Beckley admittedly was left in a difficult position by CHP’s actions, but argues that it has exclusive authority to make determinations of eligibility for disability retirement and that it is not bound by CHP’s determinations about whether Beckley could perform his job. The question here, however, is not who makes the eligibility determination, but whether CalPERS applied the correct legal standards in doing so. We have concluded that it did not because it measured Beckley’s usual job duties by considering only the duties he engaged in when he was assigned to be a PAO.”

Beckley v. Board of Administration, 2013 WL 6191070 (Cal. App. 2013).