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Mitman v. Police Pension Commission of the City of Easton and Matthew Renninger

May 6, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Simpson

Argued: April 2, 2009



In this appeal, Philip B. Mitman, former Mayor of the City of Easton, on behalf of the City of Easton (the City), asks whether the Police Pension Commission of the City of Easton (Commission) erred in awarding former Easton Police Officer Matthew Renninger (Renninger) a disability pension. Discerning no error, we affirm.

On March 25, 2005, at approximately 2:45 p.m., members of the Easton Police Department SWAT team, including Renninger and Officer Jesse Sollman, returned to the Easton Police Department after a day of SWAT training and began breaking down and cleaning various weapons used that day. Renninger took his firearm, a 40-caliber handgun, out of his holster and placed it on a bench in the locker room. Renninger placed the gun on safe, left the handgun at that location, and obtained an MP-5 from the primary armory to clean it in the secondary cleaning room.

After cleaning the MP-5, Renninger put it away and picked up his handgun to clean it, entering the secondary cleaning room again. In so doing, he took his firearm off of safe and walked down the hallway to clean his weapon, without the safety applied and without the benefit of a holster. He did, however, unload the gun before walking to the cleaning room. Once Renninger cleaned the handgun, he went back to the locker room, loaded the gun, and was about to holster it when he recognized a white smudge on the weapon. He then returned to the secondary cleaning room where Officers Weber and Sollman were present.

Renninger asked Officer Sollman how to remove the smudge, at which time the handgun was fully loaded. Officer Sollman instructed Renninger on how to remove the smudge, and Renninger went to a corner of the room and began to wipe down the loaded firearm. After wiping down the slide, Renninger took the weapon off of safe and turned counter-clockwise. While he was turning, Renninger bumped into Officer Sollman, momentarily lost his grip on the handgun, and as he reflexively grabbed and re-gripped the handgun, the gun accidentally discharged, killing Officer Sollman.

The incident was the subject of a state-wide grand jury investigation, which found that, although Renninger was negligent in handling his weapon, his actions were not unlawful so as to justify filing criminal charges. The grand jury did, however, recommended Renninger's termination as an Easton Police Officer.

Thereafter, the Easton Police Department conducted an internal investigation, the result of which led to issuance of a "Loudermill*fn1 Notice," advising Renninger of the Department's intent to recommend disciplinary action.

On May 2, 2006, police administration issued a memorandum to the City's Mayor recommending Renninger's termination. The next day, the Mayor advised Renninger he accepted the recommendation and, based on various acts of misconduct, termination was warranted. The letter also provided Renninger with notice, as required by law in a third class city, of his options to challenge the termination recommendation, recognizing termination could not be effective immediately, but required final action by city council. The first option provided for a civil service hearing before city council, while the second option described the binding arbitration procedures under the collective bargaining agreement between the City and the police union. Renninger was advised that action on the recommendation for termination would be taken at the May 10, 2006 city council meeting.

On May 9, 2006, Renninger responded to the letter and indicated he was tendering his retirement as a City employee. Concurrent with that request, Renninger submitted a request for a "disability retirement" through the police association pension plan "as a result of an on duty injury sustained while in the lawful performance of his duties" and his inability to perform the duties of his position. Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 503a.

The Assistant City Solicitor responded, acknowledging receipt of Renninger's request and indicating the City's interpretation that Renninger was unconditionally and voluntarily terminating his employment. The Assistant City Solicitor further indicated the balance of the letter would be treated as an application for retirement benefits, which would be reviewed.

In May 2007, the Commission conducted two hearings on Renninger's application. About 10 days after the final hearing, the Commission convened and adopted the decision that is the subject of this appeal. By a six-toone vote (the Mayor dissenting), the Commission determined Renninger met the conditions under Section 147.19 of the Easton Police Pension Ordinance (Pension Ordinance), and was therefore entitled to receipt of a pension pursuant to Section 147.21 as of May 9, 2006. The Commission specifically determined "Renninger's disability was sustained while in the lawful performance of his duties." R.R. at 517a. The actual disability, which was uncontested, was post-traumatic stress disorder and depression that prevented Renninger from performing his duties as a police officer.

The City appealed to the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County (trial court), arguing the Commission lacked subject matter jurisdiction to grant Renninger's request because Renninger did not prove his separation from employment was the result of an "honorable discharge." The City also argued: the Commission erred in determining Renninger's conduct was within the "lawful performance of his duties"; Renninger's disability should not be compensable as a subjective psychic injury; and, the trial court should deny the pension as a matter of public policy because Renninger's psychic injury was a subjective reaction to events placed in motion by his own misconduct. The trial court subsequently issued a thorough and thoughtful opinion in which it rejected each of these arguments.

More particularly, the trial court determined, contrary to the City's assertions, an honorable discharge was not a prerequisite to a pension award under the Pension Ordinance. Therefore, the pension could not be denied on the ground Renninger's separation from the police department did not result from an honorable discharge. Next, adopting the Commission's analysis, the trial court determined Renninger did, in fact, sustain his disability while in the "lawful performance of his duties." To that end, the trial court noted the Commission's statements that Renninger had not been convicted of a crime or misdemeanor and the grand jury investigating the underlying events found Renninger to be guilty of simple negligence only, rather than gross negligence as would have supported a charge of involuntary manslaughter. In sum, the trial court stated it felt constrained to accept the Commission's interpretation of the undefined phrase "lawful performance of duties."

Finally, the trial court rejected the City's argument that Renninger failed to establish his mental injury was the product of "abnormal working conditions." The trial court noted the "abnormal working conditions" standard, which arises out of workers' compensation and heart and lung cases, was inapplicable here. In any event, the trial court noted the Commission's conclusion that Renninger's disability did not arise from exposure to normal working conditions, but rather the incident represented an abnormal, unexpected and extraordinary work incident. For these reasons, the trial court dismissed the City's appeal and affirmed the Commission's decision. The City appeals to this Court.*fn2

At the outset, like the trial court we note, "[t]his is a tragic case, emotionally charged for all parties." Tr. Ct., Slip Op. at 4. Nevertheless, in evaluating a local agency decision, where a complete record is made before the agency, our review is limited to determining whether the agency committed an error of law and whether the agency's material findings are supported by substantial evidence. Piatek v. Pulaski Twp., 828 A.2d 1164 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2003).

On appeal, the City raises three arguments. First, the City asserts the Commission erred in determining Renninger's psychic injuries occurred in the "lawful performance of his duties." Next, the City contends the trial court erred in concluding an "honorable discharge" was not a prerequisite to Renninger's receipt of the pension. Finally, the City argues Renninger is not entitled to the ...

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