Bamboozled: Fighting for his pension

BB brandingJames Pieper, 35, has three titanium plates fused to four cages on his spine, the result of an injury he sustained working as a corrections officer at the Juvenile Justice Commission in Bordentown.

“I responded to an emergency code of two inmates fighting,” Pieper said. “While restraining one of the inmates, I landed hard on the ground, with the inmate landing on top of me.”

That was June 25, 2010. Over the next two years, he underwent two major surgeries to his spine to repair the damage.

But despite reports from state-hired medical professionals who said his injuries left him “totally and permanently disabled,” Pieper was denied an accidental disability pension.

Pieper said he knows there are plenty of public workers who take advantage of the system, but he says he’s not one of them.

42814“How could anybody in their right mind say a guy who accidently stapled his finger is deserving of disability, yet a guy who had three titanium plates fused to four cages on his spine is undeserving?” he asked, referring to the NJ Transit cop who receives a full disability pension because doctors said he couldn’t hold his weapon after accidentally stapling his finger. The officer still visits the shooting range, press reports said.

Pieper said while he’s seen many of his co-workers abuse and scam the system during his 11 years of service, he had never before taken leave for an injury. There was one three-day period in 2009 that he was put on light duty for an injury, he said, but that was it.

And now, because he was unable to work, he’s fallen into financial ruin.

“I took pride in being a hard worker and not trying to cheat a job that I was grateful to have,” he said. “In return, I’ve been left with a life of pure hell, while the scammers haven’t lost a second of sleep.”

After Pieper’s injury, the state assigned a surgeon to his case. That surgeon treated Pieper for nearly two years and placed him on a permanent 50-pound weight restriction.

The surgeon said that Pieper would be unable to perform the physical duties of his corrections job, calling him “totally and permanently disabled,” documents show.

Pieper’s state-assigned physical therapist also agreed Pieper would be unable to return to work in his past capacity.

On Feb. 7, 2012, Pieper received a letter from JJC that referred to the surgeon’s report. The state’s letter said: “Due to the nature of these restrictions, you are unable to continue employment as a Senior Correction Officer for the Juvenile Justice Commission,” and it suggested Pieper explore his options through the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System.

Pieper said he asked about other positions, but JJC told him there were no “light duty” jobs for correction officers.

A second letter, dated Feb. 17, 2012, was sent from JJC to the pension division’s Disability Review Unit. It said: “Since we are unable to provide an alternative PFRS position with duties capable of being performed by Mr. Pieper, we have no objection to his applying for disability retirement benefits…”

So Pieper applied for an accidental disability pension, which would pay two-thirds of his final salary, tax-free.

As part of the application process, Pieper had to take a state-mandated test called a Functional Capacity Evaluation. The two-hour exam produced a 16-page report,which also placed Pieper on a permanent 50-pound weight restriction and listed more than a dozen additional restrictions that would prohibit him from returning to his job as a corrections officer.

PFRS received Pieper’s application and sent him to a state-hired doctor for a required independent medical exam. Pieper said the doctor spent seven minutes examining him, and part of that exam included the doctor answering a call on his cell phone.

“He did no real test, nor documented any of my complaints that I told him,” Pieper said. “When I received his six-page medical report, I was shocked at the blatant lies in it. He stated he did numerous tests, which he never did, as well as claiming I made statements that I never did.”

The report apparently had sway with the PFRS Board, which met in July 2012 and denied Pieper’s disability claim.

“They somehow stated that they had no proof of my disability,” he said. “This was a blatant lie as they were provided with reports from an assigned treating surgeon of two years, a 16-page FCE, seven months of physical therapy and two additional doctors, all of whom documented my disability and physical restrictions.”

Pieper’s attorney filed an appeal, and after it was rescheduled several times, Pieper appeared before an administrative law judge in September 2013. He had submitted reports from the surgeon and others, and testimony was given by his own physician and the doctor who performed the state’s independent medical exam.

The judge sided with the seven-minute doctor.

“She somehow agrees that a doctor paid by the PFRS board who spent seven minutes examining me is more credible than a surgeon of two years, a two-hour FCE, a physical therapist and two other doctors,” Pieper said.

As part of the judge’s report — which is only a recommendation to the PFRS Board — the judge said that Pieper can work his job as a corrections officer with no difficulty, restrictions or limitations, documents show.

Adding insult to injury

In late March, while Pieper waited for his final hearing before PFRS, he sent two letters to state Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff, under whose purview the pension board falls. An assistant answered one, saying someone would get back to him, but he never heard a word thereafter.

April 14 would be the day for his final hearing with the PFRS Board. (Click here for a letter to the board from Pieper’s attorney, detailing Pieper’s disagreement with the court’s recommendation.)

Before his case was heard, Pieper said he witnessed several other hearings. One was the case of a police officer of 22 years who was arrested and fired after he was caught after work, in uniform, smoking crack with a prostitute. He later received probation.

“Somehow the PFRS felt he was deserving of his pension,” Pieper said, noting there was a forfeiture of two years and eight months of pension for this officer.

Next, he said, was the case of a sergeant from Camden who was fired after testing positive for methamphetamine. The sergeant argued he failed the drug test because of diet pills he purchased out of the country.

“Somehow, PFRS felt he was entitled to his pension, and it was granted with a small penalty,” Pieper said.

We checked it out, and Pieper’s memory is supported by public records.

When it was Pieper’s turn, the board accepted the judge’s recommendation, again denying the accidental disability pension and saying Pieper could return to work.

“I have never refused to return to work,” Pieper said. “The problem is I asked the JJC in the past about getting my job back because PFRS states I’m not disabled. They immediately told me that I could not have my job back because of the surgeon’s permanent restriction.”

After explaining this to the board, Pieper recounted, one board member said, “There is something wrong with the system, then.” Indeed.

And still, the claim was denied.

The PFRS determination that Pieper can return to work also stops him from receiving ordinary disability — 40 percent of salary, which is taxable. That benefit is regularly granted to people with non-work disabilities, including those with insomnia, stress leave, high blood pressure, diabetes and other conditions.

Next, Pieper again contacted JJC about a job, explaining that if the judge overturned the surgeon who said he can’t work, then he should be allowed to work.

“They don’t see it that way,” he said. “So, for doing my job and restraining an inmate from fighting, I’m not only left with a damaged spine, but also with no job and no disability. The state of New Jersey is saying that I’m too disabled to return to my job, but not disabled enough for disability.

“I think returning to my job would put me at risk of further injury, as well as me having lost mobility, but given the alternative of living in poverty, I would go back,” he said.

Pieper’s lack of income has led to his family’s financial disaster. His home in Mount Laurel was supposed to be foreclosed on last week. (More on that in a moment.) For the past two-and-a-half years, Pieper, his wife and 4-year-old daughter have been living in Pieper’s parents’ home, he said, because they can’t even afford utilities or groceries.

His only option is to appeal, which will cost thousands more in attorney fees.

Pieper’s attorney, Gary Boguski, isn’t confident they will win the appeal despite the evidence. He said while everyone who is denied feels they’ve been wrongly denied, not everyone meets the law’s requirements. He said Pieper does meet those requirements, but such cases are rarely overturned.

“The very reason this file was claimed was because my client was specifically summoned to respond to an altercation, and he got hurt. It’s part of his job,” he said. “For a correction officer, which is the most physically demanding and dangerous job for a public employee, who has had two fusions, to be denied? To me, it’s inconceivable.”

Boguski also doesn’t think Pieper would be hired back, nor should he be.

“They are never going to take a man back for full duty who had not just one, but two major surgeries on the spine,” he said. “He can’t do his specific job, wrestling with inmates, protecting his coworkers and himself. He can’t do it.”

The state response

We reached out to Treasury about Pieper’s case.

A spokesman responded, basically offering only facts about the case that we already knew. When we asked about the seven-minute doctor, and how JJC says he can’t work, yet he was denied the pension, we were directed to JJC.

While we waited for a response, we reached out to PFRS board member John Sierchio, who is an outspoken supporter of pension reform.

He said the board determines if a member is disabled based on the independent medical exam, which is ultimately reviewed by a medical review board.

While he stands by the board’s decision, Sierchio said he believes Pieper “is being wronged” — not by the pension board but by JJC, which has so far refused to give Pieper his job back.

“Since the pension board and the court made a determination that Mr. Pieper is not disabled, I believe that JJC must take him back. It’s appalling that JJC refuses to reinstate him,” Sierchio said. “They’re a state agency and the pension board is a state agency. They should abide by the pension board and the court’s decision. This should never happen to any member.”

Sierchio said an employer cannot decide that a member is disabled and expect the pension system and the taxpayers of New Jersey to foot the bill. If the pension system were to allow that type of practice, he said, “every employer would use the pension system to rid themselves of an unwanted employee.”

We checked in again with JJC, which said it had no comment.

We also made a call to Wells Fargo to explain Pieper’s situation, and the lender agreed to delay the foreclosure until June 7.

That buys some time for Pieper, but he fears it’s not enough.

“If I don’t get reinstated to my job — and I doubt the appeal will be before then — I’ll be in the same situation I am now of not being able to afford the mortgage,” he said.

We’ll keep you posted on his case.