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Thomas Alberda began work as a full-time Fresno County deputy sheriff in 1993. Before his employment, Alberda had two surgeries on his right knee: The first, in 1981, was to repair damage he sustained when he dislocated his right knee while playing high school basketball; the second, in 1984, was to remove a chip in the right knee which occurred while playing basketball. The knee did not require ongoing treatment; Alberda passed his Fresno County pre-employment physical as well as the physical requirements of the law enforcement academy.

In May 1995, Alberda hyper-extended his right leg while on duty, causing an internal derangement that required surgery, which Malcolm E. Ghazal, M.D. performed that month. Before the surgery, Dr. Ghazal advised Alberda that while the surgery would relieve his immediate symptoms, he had underlying arthritis in his knee which would continue to worsen with time and eventually could require a significant surgical procedure. Dr. Ghazal, however, hoped such a surgery could be deferred for “many years to come.” In August 1995, Alberda returned to full duty without restriction.

Sometime in 2003, Alberda, who is six feet, seven inches tall, was assigned a smaller patrol vehicle in which he did not comfortably fit; while he could work, his knees were crammed into the dashboard. After about a year, he began having severe problems with both knees and was in continual pain. He stopped working in June 2005 due to the pain in his knees and sought treatment from Marc Johnson, M.D. Orthopedic surgeon Ronald R. Castonguay, M.D. performed surgeries to repair meniscus tears on both of Alberda’s knees: the first, on September 16, 2005, was on his right knee, and the second, on October 28, 2005, was on his left knee. Alberda did not recall any specific injury to his left knee during his career, although he recalled an instance in 2001 in which he went to the hospital after he had “gone down hard” on the left knee while arresting a suspect. He thought a report of the incident had been prepared, but one was never located.

In March 2007, Alberda filed an application for a service-connected disability retirement. On April 4, 2008, the Board denied the application and instead approved the grant of a non-service connected disability retirement if Alberda wished to apply for one. Alberda submitted a request for a hearing on the Board’s decision, which was held on March 8, 2010.

The hearing officer found that Alberda’s permanent incapacity was not the result of injury or disease arising out of and in the course of his employment, and that his employment did not contribute substantially to his disability concluding that “[Alberda] had a lot of degenerative problems and it is reluctantly concluded that it is those problems and not the 1995 trauma and the 2003 assignment that led to his 2005 incapacity. The preponderance of the evidence does not establish that [Alberda]’s employment contributed substantially to his permanent incapacity. The causal connection between the job and the disability must be real and measurable and substantial and such is not found to be the case herein.”

The Superior Court affirmed the hearing officer stating “the standard of review was independent judgment, in which the trial court must afford a strong presumption of correctness concerning the administrative findings and the party challenging the administrative decision bears the burden of convincing the court the findings are contrary to the weight of the evidence.”

The Court of Appeal in the published opinion of Thomas Alberta v Board of Retirement of Fresno County Employees’ Retirement Association reversed and remanded the case.

Instead of undertaking an independent determination of whether Alberda’s disability was service-connected, the trial court denied the petition after concluding substantial evidence supported the hearing officer’s finding on that issue.

“The trial court’s written order demonstrated it did not review the Board’s decision in the required manner. While the trial court began the statement of decision by stating the correct standard of review, i.e. independent judgment, it went on to say that “substantial evidence supports the hearing officer’s decision” that Alberda was not entitled to service-connected disability retirement benefits, that “substantial evidence supports” that the 1995 injury and the 2003 assignment to a smaller squad car did not contribute substantially to Alberda’s incapacity, and “[s]ubstantial evidence supports the hearing officer’s finding” that Alberda’s degenerative problems led to his disability.