September 20, 2010

Evaluating applications for disability retirement

Evaluating applications for disability retirement
Vasquez v Board of Trustees NYCFD, NYS Supreme Court [Not selected for publication in the Official Reports]
Furch v Bucci, Appellate Division, 245 AD2d 749, Motion to appeal dismissed as not a final order, 91 NY2d 953

The rejection of an application for accidental disability retirement typically hinge on the resolution of two important questions: (1) Did the individual suffer a line-of-duty injury? and, if so, (2) did the injury result in a permanent disability? The Vasquez and Furch consider the elements involved in making such determinations.

The Vasquez Case:

Vasquez, a New York City firefighter, claimed that he had sustained line-of-duty injuries including the rupture of his right Achilles tendon in 1983, a meniscus injury to his left knee in 1988, partial rupture of his left Achilles tendon in 1991, and a herniated disc in the cervical spine in 1993. The Fire Department filed an application for disability retirement on behalf of Vasquez on December 19, 1994 and on February 20, 1996 and on August 26, 1996, Vasquez filed his own applications for accident disability retirement. On September 10, 1996, the Board of Trustees of the New York City Fire Department Article 1-B Pension Fund [Trustees] decided to retire petitioner on ordinary disability retirement, not accidental disability retirement.

According to the ruling, the 1-B Medical Board concluded that the Achilles injuries and the lumbar degeneration were non-disabling; the herniated disc in the cervical spine was non-duty related; and the knee problem was not permanently disabling.

Vasquez sued, seeking a judgment annulling the Trustees' decisions. He argued there was no credible or substantive dispute as to his condition among the medical experts. The Trustees, on the other hand, argued that Vasquez failed to meet his burden of proof that his line-of-duty accidents caused his disability. Significantly, the Trustees contended that Vasquez had filed untimely line-of-duty injury reports concerning the events underlying his claims, "although over the years he had filed many."

Two fellow firefighters provided affidavits supporting Vasquez’s account of the events at issue. But the Trustees urged that the Court not give much weight to the fact that because the statements were dated more than a year and a half after the incident Vasquez claimed caused his disability.

Finally, the Trustees contended that the fact that Vasquez never returned to full duty "is not sufficient to overcome the copious medical evidence on the record."

Although the Medical Board's determination as to whether an applicant is disabled is binding upon the Trustees, the Court said that the issue of whether the disability is service-related is solely for the Board of Trustees to decide, citing Canfora v. Board of Trustees, 60 NY2d 347, 351. Commenting that there was an "exhaustive review of the objective and subjective evidence" by the 1-B Medical Board, the Court concluded that the record supported the Trustees' determination.

New York State Supreme Court Justice Belen noted the Trustee's vote was 6-6. Justice Belen commented that "if the Trustees' decision is based on a tie vote, the court cannot disturb an administrative determination unless it can find causation as a matter of law (City of New York v Schoeck, 294 NY 559, 570)." To prevail, Vasquez had to show that "the circumstances admit but one inference," i.e., that his line-of-duty injuries were the proximate cause of his disability. As he did not meet this test, "nor has he proved that they exacerbated a latent condition," the Court sustained the Trustees' determination and dismissed Vasquez's petition.

The Furch Case:

City of Binghamton firefighter James L. Furch applied for General Municipal Law Section 207-a benefits, claiming that he suffered from arteriosclerosis brought on by job-related factors. He claimed these job-related factors ultimately resulted in a heart attack while he was raising a flag while on duty at a fire station.

The hearing officer appointed by the City, Director of Personnel and Safety David W. Watkins, ruled that Furch's "myocardial infarction and underlying arteriosclerosis were not caused by the performance of his duties as a firefighter" and his application for Section 207-a benefits was rejected by the City.

Among the points made by the Appellate Division in the appeal that followed was the following:

The fact that a Workers' Compensation Law Judge ruled that Furch's myocardial infarction was causally related to his employment, the binding effect of the decision rendered in the workers' compensation proceeding did not preclude [Binghamton] from denying [Furch's] application for benefits pursuant to General Municipal Law Section 207-a.

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If you are interested in learning more about General Municipal Law §207-a or §207-c disability benefits and procedures please click here:
http://section207.blogspot.com/2010/03/v-behaviorurldefaultvml-o.html
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