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Rossignol v. Maine Public Employees Retirement System

Superior Court of Maine, Kennebec

December 1, 2015



Before the court is Rossignol's petition pursuant to 5 M.R.S.A. §11001 et seq. and M.R.C.P. 80C for judicial review of a final agency action of the Respondent's Board of Trustees. Petitioner worked as a special education teacher, but left on April 15, 2010 because of the effect of the students' behavior on him. He suffered from major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic attacks.

On January 5, 2011, Rossignol applied for benefits from the Maine Public Employees Retirement System (MPERS) for the conditions of major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic attacks. On May 13, 2011, the Executive Director denied the application finding that the medical evidence was insufficient to determine functional limitation associated with the condition of major depressive disorder and that the medical evidence failed to establish the clinical existence of general anxiety disorder and panic attacks as of his last date in service, at the time determined to be August 31, 2010. On May 19, 2011, Rossignol appealed. Later, it was discovered that Rossignol's last date in service was April 15, 2010, so the matter was returned to the executive Director for reconsideration. On April 23. 2012, the Executive Director affirmed the denial.

During the appeal, Rossignol submitted additional medical evidence and was permitted to raise the new condition of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Consequently, the matter was again returned to the Executive Director. On September 21, 2012, the Executive Director reaffirmed the original denial and also denied any benefits based on PTSD.

Upon reconsideration after a hearing, the Executive Director denied benefits again on November 12, 2013.

The parties filed briefs with a Hearing Officer. On September 30, 2014, the Hearing Officer concluded that Rossignol failed to carry his burden to establish that he was disabled within the meaning of 5 M.R.S.A. § 17921(1). Thus, the Hearing Officer recommended that the Board of Trustees affirm the Executive Director's decision to deny disability retirement benefits. On April 9, 2015, the Board of Trustees adopted the Hearing Officer's decision.

On May 13, 2015, Rossignol petitioned this Court to vacate MPERS's Decision and Order, remand to MPERS with instructions to approve Rossignol's application for benefits, and award such further relief as the Court deems proper.

Robert Rossignol had several jobs before becoming a special education teacher. He had an Associate's Degree in Accounting and a Bachelor's degree in accounting and business education. He taught business education for about three years, did accounting for three to four years, and worked for L.L. Bean for about three years. He worked as a full-time hairstylist from 1991 through 1998.

In 1998, Rossignol obtained a special education certification and taught at the Edward Little High School in Auburn from 1998 to 2000. Rossignol then worked as a high school special education teacher at Mashwood High School for six years. During that time, Rossignol earned a Master's degree in special education in 2002.

On August 27, 2009, Rossignol began working as a Classroom Special Education Teacher for the Sebago Education Alliance (SEA) regional day treatment program under a probationary contract. His duties included creating and completing lesson plans, individual education plans, and incident reports; grading students; collecting data; supervising students; and teaching all subject areas as a special educator. Rossignol taught from one to seven students at a time, who had emotional, behavioral, and educational disabilities. Rossignol did not have experience working with these kinds of students and lacked the necessary strategies and skills for dealing with the students' behavioral challenges.

Rossignol testified that before he began the teaching the program director, Jennifer Searway, promised that he would not be alone in the classroom with the students.[1] Rossignol initially had two education technicians that helped him in the class and the three made a good team. But the technicians eventually left the classroom: one left the program and the other was assigned to help a student outside of the classroom for extended periods of time. This left Rossignol alone with his class.

When he was alone, the students behavior grew out of control and became more aggressive. Rossignol was stressed by this and developed a physical reponse by becoming anxious and fearful about going to work, developing habitual sniffing, had trouble sleeping, had dry heaves on the way to work, and had diarrhea at school about twice a week. He also experienced waking up in the morning sweating, shortness of breath, and heart palpitations.

On April 12, 2010, an assistant special education director from the Westbrook School Department observed Rossignol teaching. The Westbrook educator observed the students' misbehavior and reported it to Searway. Rossignol was so upset that he consulted his doctor, James Donahue, MD. Dr. Donohue diagnosed Rossignol with situational stress disorder resulting in generalized anxiety disorder with associated major depressive disorder and advised Rossignol to stay home for the rest of the week. Dr. Donohue said that Rossignol had an inability to work and treated him with an antidepressant and hypnotic for sleep.

Dr. Donohue also referred Rossignol to a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), David Ward. LCSW Ward concluded that Rossignol had panic attacks as a direct result of his extreme work condition, but medications were helping. LCSW Ward, nevertheless, recommended that Rossignol take an indefinite break from working at SEA and concluded that it was impossible for Rossignol to return to teaching of any kind permanently.

Rossignol claims that, on April 13, 2010, he spoke to Searway about his mental health, but did not receive any assistance, so he had to leave school. Searway explained that Rossignol told her that he planned to resign due to his long commute, but never notified her of any mental health concerns. Rossignol began unpaid leave of absence on April 15, 2010. Rossignol never returned, so school officials notified Rossignol on June 1, 2010 that his probationary contract would not be renewed.

After seven sessions with LCSW Ward, Rossignol was referred to the MaineGeneral Hospital's partial hospitalization program, where Dr. William Matuzas and Nurse Practitioner Joanne Marmanik diagnosed Rossignol with depressive disorder not otherwise specified, hypertension, and moderate severity of psychosocial stressors. Rossignol started the program in June 2010 and finished in July 2010.

On March 15, 2011, Rossignol saw Carlyle Voss, MD. Based on Rossignol's description of the SEA classroom and on his medical records, Dr. Voss diagnosed Petitioner with major depressive disorder, moderate; and anxiety disorder NOS, with features of post traumatic stress disorder. Dr. Voss stated that Rossignol met the criteria for major depressive disorder when Rossignol left SEA. Dr. Voss also found that Petitioner was globally impaired and unable to work in any capacity at this point. Dr. Voss noted that Rossignol did not meet the main criteria of having witnessed a physical injury or death or having been threatened with that, but did have a number of symptoms of PTSD. Dr.'s Donahue and Sattin, as well as LCSW Ward also included the diagnosis.

Nothing in Rossignol's medical records addressed generalized anxiety disorder until he left SEA in April 2010. LCSW Ward first described Rossignol's anxiety and panic attacks. Dr. Voss disagreed with the diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder. Dr. Voss also stated that Rossignol experienced panic attacks while working at SEA.

On April 1, 2011, LCSW Ward wrote that Rossignol remained disabled from his teaching position at SEA and is currently unable to work in any capacity. Dr. Donohue wrote that this disability will likely be permanent given that Rossignol is still being treated for unresolved stress related problems.

On April 21, 2011, the MPERS Medical Board agreed with the depression diagnosis, but stated that the major depressive disorder appears to be in remission because of the activities that Rossignol enjoys doing. The Medical Board also noted that there is insufficient evidence to find functional limitations associated with the major depressive disorder diagnosis. The Medical Board agreed that Rossignol had anxiety and panic symptoms, but stated that ...

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