The correction officer who was told he was too disabled to work, yet not disabled enough to receive a disability pension, will be back on the job later this month.
While working as a correction officer at the Juvenile Justice Commission in Bordentown in June 2010, Pieper broke up a fight between two inmates.
Pieper hit the ground hard and an inmate landed on top of him.
The injury left Pieper, now 36, with three titanium plates fused to four cages on his spine.
Several state-hired medical professionals said Pieper was “totally and permanently disabled,” according to medical and court records, and he was placed on a permanent 50-pound weight restriction.
Pieper received official word on Feb. 7, 2012, that he no longer had his correction job — a job Pieper said he was concerned he wouldn’t be able to perform given his physical limitations.
The notification from JJC said: “Due to the nature of these restrictions, you are unable to continue employment as a Senior Correction Officer for the Juvenile Justice Commission.”
Pieper, after he received the letter, repeatedly asked JJC if there was a “light duty” position for which he could be considered. JJC said no, according to several documents.
JJC recommended in writing that Pieper explore his options through the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System (PFRS).
“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…” JJC said in a Feb. 17, 2012 letter to the pension division’s Disability Review Unit.
But when Pieper applied for an accidental disability pension — which would pay, tax-free, two-thirds of his salary — he was denied.
James Pieper looks at files related to his re-employment and disability pension cases.
Jerry McCrea/NJ Advance Media
That was despite an additional two-hour state-mandated test called a Functional Capacity Evaluation, 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.
Instead, documents show, PFRS favored a report from a board-assigned, state-hired doctor. The report went against all the medical professionals who came before him. Pieper said the doctor spent only seven minutes on the exam, part of which included the doctor answering a call on his cell phone.
Based on that report, the disability claim was denied in July 2012.
That denial — because the PFRS doctor found Pieper could work — stopped Pieper from receiving ordinary disability, which is often allowed for those with non-work health issues, including stress leave, high blood pressure and insomnia.
WHERE THINGS STAND
Since we brought you Pieper’s story, he’s been fighting the state on several fronts.
He hired a new attorney to handle his disability appeal, then Pieper again asked to be reinstated with JJC, but he was denied, records show.
That’s when Pieper’s attorney had the two cases — the appeal for reinstatement and the disability appeal — consolidated into one case.
In the meantime, Pieper was told he could be placed on a re-employment list. He made the request, and that’s what turned into the job he’ll be starting later this month, he said.
His re-employment means he’ll be dropping the consolidated disability and re-employment cases.
“I don’t know how to feel about it,” Pieper said. “I am still angered by what was done to us, but at the same time I am happy that I am returning to work.”
A worker’s compensation claim — for which the decision was delayed pending the outcome of the disability pension appeal — is still pending.
In the meantime, Pieper filed a separate suit seeking a back pay award for all the time he missed going back to his termination.
“We are seeking damages for the emotional distress this has caused him in terms of not being able to work and support his family,” said Gregory Noble, Pieper’s attorney. “We are also seeking punitive damages and if successful at trial an award of attorney’s fees and expenses.”
The suit is in the early stages, and could take years to litigate, Noble said.
“We strongly believed James has been wronged in an extraordinary way and are committed to bringing justice to him and his family,” he said.
Even though Pieper will soon receive a salary again, the financial disaster brought by his years in limbo will take a long recovery time.
Pieper hasn’t been able to financially contribute to the family since his worker’s compensation benefits in November 2011. His wife started working full-time, but it’s not enough, Pieper said.
For more than three years, Pieper, his wife and 5-year-old daughter have been living with Pieper’s parents in their home.
When we met Pieper, his home — which he purchased only a few months before his injury — was days away from foreclosure. Back then, Bamboozled contacted their mortgage lender, Wells Fargo, and Wells agreed to wait until Pieper’s disability and re-employment cases concluded before taking any action.
“We are still far behind on our mortgage. We don’t know how we will ever catch up to that,” Pieper said. “We definitely don’t want the house to foreclose, but if we do stop the foreclosure, we are contemplating trying to rent it. We don’t know yet. It’s a very difficult decision for us.”
The mortgage is only part of the debt incurred by the family. There have been legal bills, medical insurance bills and regular living expenses, and Pieper said his credit hsa been destroyed.
Pieper said he’s grateful for the emotional and financial support he’s received from law enforcement organizations, including Police Officers Brotherhood and NJBlueNow. He also received help from Law Enforcement Officer, a group that sponsored a Christmas shopping spree for Pieper’s daughter, and Garden State Ryderz Motorcycle Club,
Officers at JJC also helped to pay for the new uniforms Pieper needed to get back on the job.
And now, he’s eager to return to work, earn a salary and have medical benefits again. He’s been going through the hiring process since November, which included orientations and interviews, a psych exam and a basic physical.
As for how his body will hold up to the rigors of the job, Pieper is hopeful, but concerned.
“Even with all of the preparation that I’ve done, I can’t say for sure what will happen,” he said. “I feel more confident than I did, but it’s still something that worries me. It’s a physical job, where anything can happen at any time, including responding to emergencies or even being assaulted.”
“If I were tossed to the floor during an altercation, I’m not sure how my back and neck would handle it,” Pieper said.
We wanted to know more about Pieper’s physical abilities and limitations. If several of the state’s own medical professionals said he should be on a permanent 50-pound weight restriction, and JJC said he was unfit to serve, how could JJC decide to rehire Pieper?
So we reached out to JJC, which confirmed Pieper’s re-employment but wouldn’t comment further.
We also reached out to former PFRS board member John Sierchio, who voted to deny the pension.
At the time, Sierchio said the board voted with the independent medical exam’s findings. Because it found Pieper wasn’t disabled, Sierchio said, it was JJC’s responsibility to hire Pieper back.
Sierchio said he stands by his vote, explaining that the board isn’t equipped to determine which physician, if there are several with different opinions, is the correct one, so the board always goes with the independent one hired by the board.
He faults JJC, saying it should have rehired Pieper once it was determined by the pension board that he didn’t qualify for the disability pension.
“He got screwed. He got screwed by JJC. This officer and his family paid the price of an ineffective system,” Sierchio said. “I put the blame 100 percent on JJC because they don’t have the right to decide who gets a state pension. The pension board decides that.”
“The sad part is I’ve seen people get pensions with broken fingernails, but this guy had a real injury,” he said.
We’ll keep you posted on Pieper’s return to work and his ongoing legal battles.
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.