A correction officer who was told he was too disabled to work after an on-the-job injury — but was later told he wasn’t disabled enough for a disability pension — has received a $225,000 settlement from his employer.
The case of James Pieper was one that never made much sense.
Pieper was working as a correction officer for the Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC) in Bordentown in 2010.
While restraining an inmate during a fight, Pieper landed on the ground, and the inmate landed on top of him.
Pieper underwent two major spine surgeries that left him with three titanium plates fused to four cages on his spine.
Pieper was deemed “totally and permanently disabled” by state-hired medical professionals, who placed him on a permanent 50-lb. weight restriction.
In 2012, JJC informed Pieper that he couldn’t keep his job, and it suggested he explore disability pension options with the Police and Fireman’s Retirement System (PFRS).
Pieper still wanted to work, so he asked about “light duty” jobs. JJC said there were no “light duty” positions for correction officers.
JJC sent a letter to the pension division’s Disability Review Unit, saying it had no objection to Pieper applying for disability benefits.
That led to Pieper applying for an accidental disability pension, which would pay two-thirds of his final salary, tax-free.
As part of the process, Pieper had to take a comprehensive two-hour exam called a Functional Capacity Evaluation, which was mandated by the state. This 16-page report also placed him on a permanent 50-lb. weight restriction and listed more than a dozen other restrictions that would make it impossible for him to from return to his job as a correction officer — both for his own safety, and for the safety of his co-workers.
Then he was sent to another physician by PFRS. This, Pieper said, was a seven-minute exam that included the doctor talking on his cell phone.
That doctor sent in a six-page report to PFRS, which listed tests that were never performed and completely misrepresented the exam, Pieper said at the time.
But when PFRS reviewed that report, it denied Pieper’s pension claim.
The denial, and the PFRS decision that Pieper could return to work, disqualified him from trying for an ordinary disability pension, which would be 40 percent of his salary and taxable. It’s a benefit that’s commonly awarded to those with “disabilities” that were not caused on the job, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and insomnia.
Pieper appealed, but he lost.
The judge said Pieper could work as a correction officer with no difficulty, restrictions or limitations, documents show.
When Pieper arrived for his final pension hearing, he said he listened to some other hearings, including one of an officer who was arrested and fired after he was caught smoking crack with a prostitute, after work, in uniform.
That officer later received probation, and he didn’t lose his pension.
In a second case, a Camden sergeant who was fired after testing positive for methamphetamine said he failed the drug test because of diet pills he purchased out of the country. He, too, kept his pension.
But when it was Pieper’s turn, his claim was denied.
Hence, the quandary: JJC said he was too disabled to work, yet PFRS said he was not disabled enough for a disability pension.
Two completely different opinions by two state agencies, leaving Pieper without a job and without a pension.
Pieper’s inability to work led to massive financial problems, and his home, which was purchased a few months before his injury, was in foreclosure.
He had no choice but to try to get his job back.
But again and again, JJC said no.
Pieper didn’t give up.
He was eventually told he could go back on a re-employment list, and in February — nearly five years after his injury — he got his job back.
And now, the settlement.
JJC couldn’t respond to requests for a comment on the case because state offices were closed for Veteran’s Day.
Pieper is prohibited from talking about the settlement, but his attorney, Gregory Noble, said Pieper and his family can now start the process of regaining financial stability.
“James is an incredibly resilient person and hopefully this settlement will allow him to close this chapter and start a new one,” Noble said. “It has been a very difficult road for him and I am glad for him to be able to get back on his feet.”
It wasn’t soon enough to save the Pieper family home, though.
Back when Bamboozled first met Pieper, his home was days away from foreclosure. We asked his mortgage lender, Wells Fargo, if it could help. It agreed to hold off on foreclosure while Pieper’s case was pending.
But in early 2015, the loan, which was nearly $80,000 behind, was sold to another lender. The parties agreed on a deed in lieu of foreclosure, and Pieper gave the home to the lender to satisfy all the money that was owed on the mortgage.
So the Piepers have a bit of a fresh start.
Pieper’s attorney said Pieper is working without any special accommodations or restrictions.
“He has broken up fights,” Noble said. “He is aware of his injuries and works around them but is performing his duties.”
But Pieper’s permanent 50 lb. weight restriction has never been removed.
It’s just one more thing about this case that never made sense.
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.