Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Welch v. California State Teachers' Retirement System (Cal. Ct. App. - Jan. 31, 2012)

This is facially a very appealing case.  Melanie Welch is a teacher and in 1998 is attacked by a group of students, who kick her in the leg and punch her in the face.  She doesn't go back to work, and says that she calls someone at the California State Teachers' Retirement System about getting disability benefits but they tell her she doesn't qualify because she doesn't have five years of service.  But this isn't true.  Six years later she finds out that she qualifies and applies, but they deny her benefits because she didn't apply on time.  There's some more procedural wrangling below, but eventually, the case comes up on appeal, and the Court of Appeal reverses.  You misled her, so you probably have to give her benefits.

Again, facially, that seems right.  It might even be correct as a legal matter.  If you told someone the wrong thing, and if telling them the wrong thing resulted in the delay (and stopped them from obtaining the evidence they need of the underlying disability), this may be your problem, not theirs.

But let's read between the lines a little bit to figure out what's really going on here.

The day after the attack, the school principal asks Welch to return to work, but she says she's too shaken up.  That's reasonable.  So the principal tells her to see an occupational therapist, which she does.  Who says that, yes, she's cleared for work.  But Welch still doesn't return.

So the district puts Welch on administrative leave.  With pay.  Pretty nice.

Meanwhile, the school district has started to investigate allegations of Welch's erratic behavior, including allegedly hitting children at the middle school.  My strong sense is that these are not new allegations, and that stuff has been going on for a while.  Perhaps consistent with her taking the hat of a kid that led to her getting attacked.  Welch says, however, that the school district's only doing this because she said she'd complain about the lack of safety in her school, to which the principal responded that if she filed a complaint, "he had 20 kids who would say that she hit and kicked them."  Now, maybe the principal was stupid enough to make such a threat, which seems exceptionally overblown in any event to head off a complaint that (gasp!) a school in Oakland is occasionally violent.  Or maybe Welch is just making things up.  Let's try to remember that when we're assessing equity and credibility.

That's when Welch says she made her phone call and was falsely told she didn't qualify for benefits.  A call to an unnamed person on an unknown date with no evidence other than Welch's testimony.  But fear not.  It's not as though Welch is helpless.  In February 1999, the school district tells Welch that she's being dismissed -- though will continue to pay her for several weeks of doing nothing -- and Welch files a petition for writ of mandate, which she ultimately wins on procedural grounds.  But then the district redoes everything in the right way and dismisses her again, and this one sticks.

But still, after years of active litigation, no claim by Welch for disability benefits.  To get her five years, Welch -- who, remember, says she's disabled -- works as a substitute teacher in Sacramento, but says she "didn't handle it very well."  In any event, she doesn't get enough time in.  But then, in 2005, she sues, claiming the deception and disability described above, asserting PTSD.  Oh, and she also applies for SSI benefits for disability, which she obtains.

When Welch sues, the ALJ finds Welch not credible.  But the trial court denies benefits on different grounds (because Welch can't prove she was disabled back in 1999 as opposed to today).  But the Court of Appeal reverses.  Holding that this all might well be the Retirement System's fault and strongly hinting that Welch should get benefits.

Oh, one more thing.  Welch may be totally disabled and unable to work.  But that doesn't stop her from prosecuting her case in pro per.  Which she does successfully.

Again, maybe all of this is complete justice.  But maybe not.  Depends profoundly upon your view.