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March 06, 2009
Teacher Quits Because of Stress, Denied Retirement Benefits

A New Brunswick teacher in her early 60s began feeling increasingly anxious at work, eventually retiring because of  her stress. The school board denied her ordinary disability retirement benefits, claiming she could still work.

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What happened. “Ada” had a long career as a teacher. Born in 1943, she taught for 5 years in her youth before taking time out to raise a family, then returned to teaching in the early 1980s. In 2001, she went to work in New Brunswick at the Woodrow Wilson School. She received tenure after 3 years. The school assigned her to teach second grade for the 2005-2006 school year.

That year did not go well for Ada: The principal and vice principal criticized her several times and observed her teaching three or four times a week, whereas teachers are normally observed just once or twice a year. She was written up almost 20 times and issued three warnings. Ada believed that her age (63) and her salary ($72,500) were the reasons for this criticism. She claimed that she felt threatened, harassed, and increasingly stressed. She saw a psychologist every week to treat her anxiety, but refused the medications he offered. She took a week off in the spring to relax, but felt even more stressed when she returned to school. After experiencing chest pains at work, she saw a cardiologist.

Ada requested a transfer to another school but was denied. She decided that she could no longer teach under the circumstances, and submitted an application for ordinary disability retirement benefits. Ada resigned at the end of the school year.

The Board of Trustees of the school board had a psychiatrist examine Ada. He found that she was not mentally incapacitated or permanently disabled. He believed she had an anxiety disorder treatable with medication and that, in the right setting, she could continue functioning as a teacher. Based on this diagnosis, the Board denied her application for pension benefits. Ada appealed.

What the court said. Ada argued that the Board’s decision was unreasonable. She claimed that the law did not require her to prove that she be disabled from working as a teacher for any employer, and that it was unreasonable to expect her to find another teaching job in the district after her request for a transfer had been denied.

The court disagreed. In New Jersey, a teacher with a disabling mental condition may qualify for disability retirement benefits, but the court did not believe that Ada was disabled. It noted that she had taught successfully for many years, and that her disorder was curable. In order to qualify for ordinary disability benefits, Ada would have had to prove that she was unable to perform her duty for any employer. The court upheld the Board’s decision denying benefits. Bueno v. Board of Trustees, Teachers’ Pension & Annuity Fund, Superior Court of New Jersey, No. A-0916-07T2 (12/11/08).

Point to remember: In order to be eligible for disability benefits, an employee generally must be unable to perform the duties of his or her occupation, not just a particular position with a specific employer.

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