Bowen v. Board of Retirement

Decision Date25 September 1986
Citation724 P.2d 500,42 Cal.3d 572,229 Cal.Rptr. 814
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties, 724 P.2d 500 Thomas BOWEN, Petitioner and Appellant, v. BOARD OF RETIREMENT OF the LOS ANGELES COUNTY EMPLOYEES' RETIREMENT ASSOCIATION, Defendant and Respondent. LA 32072.

Lemaire & Faunce, Lemaire, Faunce & Katznelson, Mark Ellis Singer, Edward L. Faunce and Steven R. Pingel, Los Angeles, for plaintiff and appellant.

De Witt W. Clinton, Co. Counsel, Milton J. Litvin, Asst. Co. Counsel, and Tina Scarpellino, Deputy Co. Counsel, Los Angeles, for defendant and respondent.

REYNOSO, Justice.

In 1980 the Legislature amended the Government Code section dealing with service-connected disability retirement of public employees. 1 The new wording required that employment contribute substantially to an employee's incapacity before the employee could qualify for such retirement. Did the amendment change the test for industrial causation, or merely clarify existing law? As we detail below, we conclude that the causation test was not changed.

Thomas Bowen applied for a service-connected disability retirement under section 31720. The Board of Retirement of the Los Angeles County Employees' Retirement Association (Board) denied his application; instead, he was awarded a nonservice-connected pension. 2 The trial court denied Bowen's writ petition for a service-connected disability retirement and the Court of Appeal affirmed. We reverse and remand.


Bowen worked for the County of Los Angeles as a stenographer from 1956 to 1975, and as an eligibility worker from 1975 to 1977. In May 1977, he broke his ankle in a nonservice-connected accident and never returned to work. Bowen testified that he decided not to return to work because he could not face the stress he experienced in performing his duties, particularly as an eligibility worker. He has been employed only sporadically since May 1977, having found any work situation too stressful.

In May 1978, a psychiatrist found that Bowen was temporarily disabled, and suffering from symptoms of anxiety, depression and alcohol abuse as a result of work stress as an eligibility worker. Bowen applied for a service-connected disability retirement in August 1978. Three doctors examined him between October 1978 and July 1979, and generally found that he had no permanent disability. In September 1979, the Board notified him that he was not disabled from his duties and denied his pension application.

Bowen suffered a heart attack in late July 1979, which apparently caused some permanent heart damage. Medical and psychiatric reports prepared during 1980-1981 indicate that he is totally disabled, attributing from 0 to 50 percent of his disability to industrial factors. At Bowen's request, a hearing before a Board referee was held in November 1981. Based on the referee's recommendation, the Board granted Bowen a nonservice-connected disability pension. The trial court denied Bowen's petition for a peremptory writ of mandate for a service-connected pension and the Court of Appeal affirmed.


Bowen initially applied for service-connected disability retirement in August 1978. Before his November 1981 hearing, however, the Legislature passed an amendment to section 31720 (the 1980 amendment) that became effective on January 1, 1981. Prior to the 1980 amendment, section 31720 provided in pertinent part: "Any member permanently incapacitated for the performance of duty shall be retired for disability regardless of age if, and only if: (a) His incapacity is a result of injury or disease arising out of and in the course of his employment...." The 1980 amendment added the following clause to subdivision (a): "and such employment contributes substantially to such incapacity." It also provided that this "substantial contribution" test "shall be applicable to all applicants for disability retirement on or after the effective date" of the amendment (Jan. 1, 1981).

Bowen contends that the 1980 amendment should not be applied retroactively to persons who applied before its effective date. He bases this first contention on two grounds: (1) rules of construction prevent retroactive application of a statute unless the Legislature expressly and clearly declares its intent that a statute operate retroactively (DiGenova v. State Board of Education (1962) 57 Cal.2d 167, 176, 18 Cal.Rptr. 369, 367 P.2d 865; Flint v. Sacramento County Employees' Retirement Assn. (1985) 164 Cal.App.3d 659, 663, 210 Cal.Rptr. 439); and (2) any retroactive application of a stricter standard of causation under section 31720 would unconstitutionally impair his vested contractual right to a pension. (Allen v. City of Long Beach (1955) 45 Cal.2d 128, 131, 287 P.2d 765; Abbott v. City of Los Angeles (1958) 50 Cal.2d 438, 453, 326 P.2d 484.)

Alternatively, in his second contention, Bowen asserts that the trial court and Court of Appeal misinterpreted the substantial contribution test of the 1980 amendment to section 31720. We need only address his second contention in order to resolve this case. 3

In Heaton v. Marin County Employees Retirement Bd. (1976) 63 Cal.App.3d 421, 133 Cal.Rptr. 809, the court interpreted section 31720 in the context of an employee's claim for a service-connected disability pension based on her mental disability. In that case, the Board appealed from a trial court's writ of mandate directing it to grant the employee a service-connected pension. The Board argued that section 31720 required that the employment "be the sole or at least the substantial contributing cause of the disability before retirement disability may be awarded." (Id., at pp. 425-426, 133 Cal.Rptr. 809.) The Heaton court rejected this argument, emphasizing that section 31720 required only that an incapacity be " 'a result of injury or disease arising out of and in the course of his employment,' not the result thereof." (Id., at p. 428, original italics, 133 Cal.Rptr. 809.)

In a related argument, the Board contended that employment must be the sole cause of disability when the employee's permanent incapacity results from mental, rather than physical disability. Otherwise, according to the Board, a psychiatrist would not be able to delimit causation of psychiatric disorders in cases of mental disability. Thus, even an "infinitesimal contribution to the disability might require full contribution." (Id., at pp. 430-431, 133 Cal.Rptr. 809.) The Heaton court also rejected this argument, noting that section 31722 explicitly provided for mental as well as physical disabilities. The court concluded that it had "no authority to rewrite the law to conform to [the Board's] view of what it should be. [The Board's] complaint is with the Legislature." (Id., at p. 431, 133 Cal.Rptr. 809.)

After the Heaton decision, some trial courts interpreted its holding to mean that even an infinitesimal or inconsequential work-related contribution to disability would suffice for a service-connected disability retirement. (Van Hook v. Board of Retirement (1983) 148 Cal.App.3d 714, 716, fn. 1, 196 Cal.Rptr. 186; DePuy v. Board of Retirement (1978) 87 Cal.App.3d 392, 396, 150 Cal.Rptr. 791.) In reaction to this interpretation of Heaton, many county governments advocated an amendment to section 31720, fearing that the courts' liberal interpretation of industrial causation could threaten the viability of their retirement systems. (Assem. File Analysis, Sen. Bill No. 1076, June 5, 1980.) As originally introduced, the amendment allowed for a service-connected retirement only if the "permanent incapacity is the principal result of a substantial employment-caused injury or disease." (Sen. Bill No. 1076 (1979-1980 Reg.Sess.) § 1, italics added.) A Senate analysis of the bill stated that the Heaton court "determined that existing law allows an industrial disability retirement allowance to be granted even if the injury in question is not entirely service-connected.... This bill is an attempt to address that court decision." (Sen.Com. on Pub. Employment & Retirement, May 14, 1979, italics added.)

Following a hearing by the Assembly Committee on Public Employees and Retirement, however, Senate Bill No. 1076 was amended to its present form, including the substantial contribution test for industrial causation. Significantly, the Assembly amendment deleted the requirement that a permanent incapacity be a principal result of an employment-caused injury from the bill's final form. In the Assembly Third Reading, the analysis notes that the bill is a response to Heaton, supra, 63 Cal.App.3d 421, 133 Cal.Rptr. 809, in which the court stated that "a member is entitled to a service-connected disability if (1) he or she is permanently unable to perform his or her job, and (2) iany part of the disability is job-connected." (Assem. Third Reading file analysis, June 5, 1980, original italics.) The analysis also stated that the amendments to Senate Bill No. 1076 "reflect a compromise between supporters of the bill and representatives from labor who strenuously opposed the bill as it was introduced." (Ibid.) After the Senate concurred in the amended bill, the Governor signed it into law.

In this case, the Board contends that we should interpret the substantial contribution test of section 31720 to mean more than 50 percent industrial causation. We cannot discern such a purpose in the legislative history of the 1980 amendment. As the court in Gatewood v. Board of Retirement (1985) 175 Cal.App.3d 311, 318, 220 Cal.Rptr. 724, concluded: "[T]he Legislature intended to disavow the implications of Heaton but did not go so far as requiring the disability [to] be the [principal] result of an employment caused injury or illness. In other words, 'contributes substantially' means more than 'any' and less than '[principal].' Beyond this rough bracketing, however, the Legislature provided no clear guide to interpret 'contributes substantially.' " (See also Lundak...

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