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Joe Valero v. Board of Retirement of Tulare County Employees' Retirement

May 1, 2012

JOE VALERO, PLAINTIFF AND APPELLANT,
v.
BOARD OF RETIREMENT OF TULARE COUNTY EMPLOYEES' RETIREMENT ASSOCIATION, DEFENDANT AND RESPONDENT.



APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Tulare County. Melinda Myrle Reed, Judge. (Super. Ct. No. VCU233405)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Franson, J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Respondent Board of Retirement of Tulare County Employees' Retirement Association (the Board) denied the application of appellant Joe Valero for a service-connected disability retirement. Valero petitioned the superior court for an administrative writ of mandate directing the Board to grant him a service-connected disability retirement. He contended that a disabling psychiatric condition, a panic disorder which the Board concedes he suffers from, was service-connected. The Board contended that the condition was not service-connected. The court denied Valero's petition. Valero has appealed from the superior court's denial order, and contends that the superior court's order is not supported by substantial evidence. As we shall explain, we find his contention without merit, and affirm the superior court's order denying the petition.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Certain basic facts are undisputed. Valero was hired as an "Office Assistant II" by the County of Tulare Health and Human Services Agency (the County) in April of 1999. In that position, he had interaction with members of the public, sometimes in stressful situations. On February 6, 2007, he submitted an application to the Board for a disability retirement. On that application, he described the nature and cause of the disabilities that permanently incapacitated him from the performance of his job duties as "[a]nxiety, and high blood pressure [¶] 12-2-04 [¶] cardiovascular." He explained this was caused by his interaction with angry clients at work in December of 2004. His application included a "Treating Physician's Statement of Disability," (full capitalization omitted) stating that Valero was permanently disabled from his occupation and that his employment substantially contributed to the disability.

On July 9, 2008, the Board determined that Valero failed to meet his burden of establishing service connection, and instead granted Valero a non-service-connected disability retirement. In accordance with Board procedure, Valero, representing himself, requested an informal hearing on the issue of service connection, and the matter was submitted to a hearing officer for a proposed decision. The "informal hearing" was conducted "without a formal evidentiary hearing" and was based upon the hearing officer's review of documentary material provided to her. On February 6, 2009, the hearing officer concluded that Valero failed to establish that his permanent psychiatric incapacitation was service-connected. For various reasons, the hearing officer essentially declined to accept the medical opinions contained in four medical reports submitted by the parties*fn1 and, after consideration of other evidence, including voluminous employment and medical records, concluded that Valero failed to meet his burden to show that his County employment was a "substantial factor" in bringing about his psychiatric disability.

On April 8, 2009, the Board voted unanimously (seven to zero, with three of the 10 members absent) to follow the recommendation of the hearing officer and to deny Valero's application for a service-connected disability retirement.

Valero then filed his superior court petition for administrative mandamus under Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5 on July 2, 2009. After concluding that the hearing officer properly rejected the opinions contained in the four medical reports, the court independently reviewed the remaining evidence, concluded that Valero had not met his burden to show a real and measurable connection between his permanent psychiatric disability and his employment. It also rejected the argument that the findings of the hearing officer were not supported by the weight of the evidence and denied Valero's petition on May 2, 2011.

This appeal followed.

DISCUSSION

I. County Employee Disability Retirement

As an employee of the County, Valero became a "member" of the County's retirement association. (Gov. Code, §§ 31470, 31552.)*fn2 Section 31720 pertains to qualification of a member for disability retirement and states in pertinent part:

"Any member permanently incapacitated for the performance of duty shall be retired for disability ...


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