Ex-Police Recruit Entitled to Disability Hearing, Court Rules

Times Staff Writer

An injured former police recruit is entitled to a hearing to seek disability retirement benefits, even if he has failed to adequately complete a municipal application form, the state Supreme Court has ruled.

The justices acknowledged Monday that the applicant, Joseph C. Thompson, had not expressly identified the full extent of his injury claims on a benefit form he submitted to the City of San Diego.

But authorities could not deny benefits on an "unduly restrictive interpretation" of Thompson's responses on the form, and he is due a hearing to reassert his claims, the court said.

"The form provided by the city allowed only minimal space for a statement of the many potentially interacting causes of a disability, and did not advise applicants that . . . the sufficiency of the application would be judged under strict standards more commonly applied to legal pleadings," Justice John A. Arguelles wrote for the court.

Injured Knees

The case arose after Thompson, undergoing Police Academy training in January, 1980, ran into a concrete bench at a bus stop and injured both knees.

Thompson performed clerical work temporarily and then received conflicting assessments from physicians about the condition of one of his injured knees. One doctor said he was fit to resume training, the other said he should avoid repetitive bending, squatting or turning and indicated that running under stress would be difficult.

Thompson was ordered to return to the academy and faced what his lawyers said was a difficult dilemma: If he did not return, he might forfeit his lifetime ambition to become a police officer; but if he did return, he risked further injury that also would preclude a law enforcement career.

On the day before he was due to report to the academy, Thompson attempted suicide. Thereafter, his psychological condition prevented even a return to clerical duties, and in September, 1981, he applied for disability retirement, which would pay him about $600 a month, his attorney estimated.

Completing an application form, Thompson described his disability as "injury to both knees and anxiety" and said he had injured the knees in January, 1980, resulting in the need for orthopedic and psychiatric care.

Application Rejected

The city denied him a hearing, rejecting the application on the grounds that at the time of the knee injury, Thompson had not yet joined the city's retirement system and thus could not collect benefits.

A trial court and a state appellate panel upheld the city, saying that to rule for Thompson would encourage employees to defer joining the system until they had actually been injured.

In its ruling Monday, the state Supreme Court did not reach the question of whether Thompson was entitled to benefits.

But, said the court, the city could not refuse a hearing merely because Thompson's application failed to specify his psychological condition as a cause of disability, along with the physical injury to his knees. The city had known of his physical injury and subsequent suicide attempt, and thus had adequate notice of a separate psychological basis for his disability retirement claim, the justices said.

Further proceedings must be held to give Thompson an opportunity to show that his permanent disability--attributable to both his physical injury and his resulting psychological condition--arose after he had joined the retirement system, the court said.

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