SWAT Officer Loses PTSD Claim

Written on 09/11/2021
Will Aitchison

Christopher Rocap began working as a New Jersey State Police trooper in 1993. In 2001, he joined the Technical Emergency and Mission Specialist Unit (TEAMS), which specializes in danger­ous and technical assignments. Rocap’s experiences with TEAMS included rescuing persons trapped in burning buildings, recovering the bodies of drowning victims, engaging and talking down suicidal persons, and dealing with armed suspects holding hostages.

In 2013, Rocap began treatment with psychiatrist James Hoyme. Dr. Hoyme diagnosed Rocap with chronic PTSD “due to cumulative stress related to his work.” Rocap continued psychotherapy sessions with Dr. Hoyme for a number of years and was prescribed medication.

In September 2014, Rocap complet­ed a fitness-for-duty evaluation with a psychologist, who reported that “Rocap stated that over his entire career in the TEAMS Unit, he responded to over 1200 incidents that included such traumatic events as people blowing other people’s heads off right in front of him. He told me that all of these incidents started getting to him, and being a supervisor made things worse.”

The psychologist concluded Rocap was unfit for duty, opining that Rocap suffered from “a degree of mental illness or disability in his job-related conduct that is of sufficient magnitude to find Rocap impaired and unlikely to be restored to duty in a reasonable period of time.” Rocap retired on November 1, 2014, and filed a claim for accidental disability retirement benefits due to his PTSD.

A New Jersey appeals court rejected Rocap’s claim for accidental disability benefits. The Court noted that “the main difference between ordinary and acciden­tal disability retirement is that ordinary disability retirement need not have a work connection. Moreover, accidental disability retirees receive significantly greater benefits than those provided to ordinary disability retirees. “An individual is only eligible for accidental disability retirement benefits if the member is permanently and totally disabled as a direct result of a traumatic event occurring during and as a result of the performance of his regular or assigned duties. The traumatic event must be ob­jectively capable of causing a reasonable person in similar circumstances to suffer a disabling mental injury.

“Here, an administrative law judge concluded that Rocap’s condition was caused by the cumulative impact over time of his repeated exposure to danger, violence, death, and injuries in his work. Therefore, the ALJ found Rocap failed to meet his burden as to causation to qualify for accidental disability retirement benefits.

“We are satisfied the ALJ’s decision and the Board’s subsequent adoption of it were based on the substantial, credible evidence in the record. While we com­mend Rocap’s service to this state and are sympathetic to his mental condition, under the circumstances presented be­fore us, we cannot disturb the Board’s determination.

“Rocap continued to work for six years after his 2004 officer-involved shooting without complaint and was promoted twice. The record is devoid of any medical treatment following the incident. Rocap stated he developed back pain in 2010 and was diagnosed with PTSD a few years later. Rocap’s treating psychiatrist originally wrote that his PTSD was caused by the cumulative impact over time of his repeated exposure to extreme danger, violence, deaths, and injuries in his work as a Trooper. All the experts agreed with that conclusion until Rocap’s counsel amended the application to refer to the 2004 incident.

“We are satisfied the ALJ’s conclusion that Rocap’s condition was not the direct result of the traumatic 2004 incident is supported by the substantial credible evidence in the record.”

Rocap v. Board of Trustees, 2021 WL 2821121 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2021).

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