Appellate court overturns ruling granting Kern deputy PTSD-related disability retirement

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — A judge’s ruling granting a former Kern deputy permanent disability retirement has been overturned by an appellate court that found the judge failed to apply the proper standard of review.

The case will be sent back to Kern County Superior Court for another hearing in light of the 5th District Court of Appeal’s June 21 ruling.

Under state law, Superior Court Judge Eric Bradshaw was required to give a strong presumption the retirement board’s decision was correct, according to a three-judge appellate panel.

The former deputy, Michael Blue, had the burden of providing evidence showing the board’s decision was “jurisdictional excess, a serious error of law, or an abuse of discretion.”

But Bradshaw’s comments in a hearing on the matter three years ago suggest he misunderstood the importance of the considerable weight the board’s decision should have received, the appellate court said.

“I think that was a correct way to state what I did, which was to independently weigh the evidence and come to a decision,” Bradshaw said.

He never discussed what evidence Blue presented to overcome the strong presumption needed to reject the board’s decision.

The case has its origins in June 2011 when Blue confronted a man who reports say was trying to break into vehicles. The man knocked Blue to the ground and another deputy discharged a Taser but it had no effect, according to court documents.

The man grabbed Blue’s baton and raised it as Blue stood up. Blue fired his gun several times, striking and fatally wounding the man.

The deputy saw a department psychologist about “intrusive thoughts” he experienced after the shooting, court documents say.

Three doctors diagnosed Blue with post-traumatic stress disorder and restricted him from law enforcement work. Blue last worked as a deputy in March 2012.

Blue applied June 2013 to Kern County Employees’ Retirement Association (KCERA) for a service-connected disability retirement. KCERA’s medical officer reviewed the doctors’ reports and found insufficient evidence Blue could no longer work as a deputy, the documents say.

KCERA denied Blue’s application. The deputy requested a hearing on the matter.

Following the hearing, an arbitrator found “no substantial evidence” Blue was permanently incapacitated from performing his regular duties, according to the documents. The arbitrator recommended the disability retirement be denied and the association adopted his recommendation.

Blue took the issue to court, and in 2018 Bradshaw found in his favor.

The judge said he found a “preponderance of the substantial evidence supports the determination that (Blue) is permanently incapacitated from working as a deputy sheriff due to a service-connected mental injury, PTSD…,” the documents say.

Bradshaw overruled objections filed by KCERA. The association appealed.

The appellate court in its ruling says Bradshaw misunderstood the correct standard of review and appeared to give no deference to KCERA’s administrative decision. Bradshaw instead appeared from the beginning to give both sides equal weight.

Indeed, Bradshaw said he didn’t find a serious error in KCERA’s decision. He described it as a “close case” he resolved by exercising his own judgment.

“Well, I think that it seems to me that once you tell a Superior Court judge that they have to exercise independent judgment, that that’s what they’re required to do regardless of what the administrative agency did,” Bradshaw said.

The appellate court says that was incorrect.

“We recognize that this standard is not always easy for a trial court to apply, but here, based on the whole record, we must conclude the trial court misapplied the independent judgment standard in this case,” the court’s ruling says.

It goes on to say, “While the bottom-line question for the trial court under the independent judgment standard was whether or not Blue showed that his evidence outweighed KCERA’s, the court’s failure to properly apply the presumption of correctness warrants remand.”

A hearing on the matter had not been scheduled.

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