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Jones v. Arkansas Local Police and Fire Retirement System

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division III

May 2, 2018

MEGAN E. JONES APPELLANT
v.
ARKANSAS LOCAL POLICE AND FIRE RETIREMENT SYSTEM, BOARD OF TRUSTEES, ET AL. APPELLEES

          APPEAL FROM THE PULASKI COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, SIXTH DIVISION [NO. 60CV-16-5354] HONORABLE TIMOTHY DAVIS FOX, JUDGE

          Robert A. Newcomb, for appellant.

          Eichenbaum Liles, P.A., by: Richard L. Ramsay, for appellees.

          KENNETH S. HIXSON, Judge

         Appellant Megan E. Jones, a former police officer for the Little Rock Police Department, appeals from the denial of her claim for duty-related disability retirement benefits. The Arkansas Local Police and Fire Retirement System (LOPFI) found that Ms. Jones was not entitled to duty-related disability retirement benefits because her disabling injuries occurred while she was an employee of Dillard's Department Store (Dillard's) and not the Little Rock Police Department. LOPFI instead awarded Ms. Jones nonduty-related disability retirement benefits.[1] The LOPFI Board of Trustees (the Board) confirmed this decision. Ms. Jones appealed the Board's findings to the Pulaski County Circuit Court, which upheld the Board's findings as being supported by substantial evidence and not arbitrary and capricious.

         In this appeal, Ms. Jones argues that the Board's decision was not supported by substantial evidence, and also that the Board violated the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) during the proceedings. Because we agree that the Board's decision was not supported by substantial evidence, we reverse and remand for an award of duty-related disability retirement benefits.

         Arkansas Code Annotated section 24-10-607(c)(1)(A) (Repl. 2014) provides the legal standard that Ms. Jones had to meet to receive duty-related disability retirement benefits:

Any active member who while an active member becomes totally and permanently physically or mentally incapacitated for any suitable duty as an employee as the result of a personal injury or disease that the board finds to have arisen out of and in the course of his or her actual performance of duty as an employee may be retired by the board upon proper application filed with the board by or on behalf of the member or former member.

(Emphasis added.) The Board found that Ms. Jones failed to establish that the cause of her disability was duty related as required by the statute.

         This appeal is governed by the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). Our review of an appeal under the APA is directed, not toward the circuit court, but toward the decision of the agency. Sexton v. Local Police and Fire Ret. Sys., 2016 Ark.App. 496, 506 S.W.3d 248. For purposes of our review of this case, the APA provides that the agency decision may be reversed or modified if the substantial rights of the petitioner have been prejudiced because the administrative findings, inferences, conclusions, or decision are not supported by substantial evidence or are arbitrary, capricious, or characterized by an abuse of discretion. Ark. Code Ann. § 25-15-212(h) (Repl. 2014). Our court reviews the entire record to determine whether any substantial evidence supports the agency decision. State Sex Offender Risk Assessment Comm. v. Wallace, 2013 Ark.App. 654. In determining whether substantial evidence exists to support an agency decision, we ascertain whether there is relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the agency's conclusion. Id. The issue is not whether we would have made a different decision but rather whether reasonable minds could conclude as the agency did. Id.

         Ms. Jones became a police officer for the Little Rock Police Department (the Department) in 2006. Subsequently, with the Department's permission, Ms. Jones obtained part-time employment at Dillard's. While working at Dillard's, Ms. Jones wore her full police uniform, and her duties were to deter crime and prevent shoplifting.

         Two separate incidents occurred that caused injuries to Ms. Jones while discharging her duties at Dillard's. The first occurred in 2008 when she was investigating a possible theft of store property. On that occasion, during the course of Ms. Jones's interaction with a suspect on the store parking lot, the suspect got into her SUV and struck Ms. Jones with the vehicle as the suspect fled the scene. The next incident at Dillard's occurred in 2012 when Ms. Jones was trying to apprehend three shoplifters; the shoplifters resisted, resulting in a physical altercation in which Ms. Jones was dragged to the floor. Ms. Jones sustained injuries to both knees and to her right ankle during these incidents. Despite these injuries, she was able to continue her employment as a police officer with the Department until July 2015, at which time her injuries had advanced to where she could no longer perform her duties.

         Ms. Jones applied for duty-related disability retirement benefits in November 2015. In support of her claim, Ms. Jones submitted a letter from her physician stating that Ms. Jones was totally and permanently disabled from her job as a police officer as a result of her injuries. Ms. Jones also submitted copies of the felony information from the 2008 and 2012 incidents, which reflected that the perpetrators in each case had been charged with battery committed against Ms. Jones while she was acting as a police officer in the line of duty.

         Ms. Jones testified at the hearing before the Board. Ms. Jones described the incidents that occurred at Dillard's in 2008 and 2012, and she stated that due to the injuries she received during those incidents, she ...


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