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January 7, 2011

Discontinuing General Municipal Law Section 207-c disability benefits

Discontinuing General Municipal Law Section 207-c disability benefits
Gamma v Bloom, 274 AD2d 14

In Gamma, the Appellate Division concluded that an agreement negotiated pursuant to the Taylor Law can set out the controlling procedures for resolving disputes concerning Section 207-c benefits, including resolving any dispute concerning light duty assignments and the continuation of such benefits through arbitration.

City of Newburgh police officer Stephen J. Gamma suffered a line-of-duty back injury in June 1996. Newburgh approved his claim for disability benefits pursuant to General Municipal Law Section 207-c.

A year later Gamma was examined by a Newburgh police surgeon and found fit to perform light duty. Gamma reported to his light duty assignment as directed but he left work before the completion of his first shift, complaining of pain and fatigue.

When Gamma, contending that he was still disabled, failed to return to work following his initial reporting for light duty, Newburgh terminated his Section 207-c effective June 21, 1997. The City placed Gamma on sick leave and his absence charged to his leave accruals.

Effective October 22, 1997, Gamma’s Section 207-c benefits were restored to him. Gamma, however, sued, contending that he was entitled to benefits for the period June 21, 1997, through and including October 21, 1997.

Gamma argued that Newburgh improperly discontinued his Section 207-c benefits in violation of due process because it did not give him any pre-termination due process hearing. A New York Supreme Court judge directed Newburgh to (1) restore his Section 207-c benefits and, (2) recredit Gamma with any accumulated sick leave credits that Gamma had used to remain on the payroll.

Newburgh challenged the court’s ruling, claiming that Gamma had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies because the collective bargaining agreement between the PBA and Newburgh mandated arbitration of any dispute over continuing Section 207-c benefits.

The City argued that the issues of Gamma’s qualification for light duty, the restoration of his sick leave credits and the reinstatement of his Section 207-c benefits should have been submitted to arbitration.

The PBA, on the other hand, asked the Appellate Division to affirm the lower court’s ruling, contending that Gamma could bring his Article 78 action because the collective bargaining agreement merely preserved Gamma’s rights under the statute and that he had the option of proceeding by way of arbitration or judicial review.

The Appellate Division said no, holding that Newburgh was correct -- arbitration was the only means available to Gamma if he wished to contest Newburgh’s decision.

The court declined to consider the merits of the issue, holding that the arbitrator had to resolve those issues as mandated by the parties’ collective bargaining agreement.

The relevant contract provision provides that [i]f the [Union] and the Chief of Police fail to agree on an on-the-job injury or continuation of, then both sides agree to send the issue to grievance arbitration.

Accordingly, said the Appellate Division, whether Gamma remained disabled within the meaning of Section 207-c, and whether the collective bargaining agreement required arbitration prior to the termination of benefits, are issues for the arbitrator to resolve.

The court also indicated that disability benefits payable to police officers pursuant to Section 207-c, once awarded, are a property interest that may not be terminated without procedural due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court of Appeals in Uniform Firefighters of Cohoes Local 2562, v City of Cohoes, 94 NY2d 686, addressed this issue, clarifying the requirements of due process in terminating such benefits under the procedures set forth under the statute, which include the ability to seek judicial review pursuant to CPLR article 78.

This, however, said the Appellate Division, did not mean that a union and an employer could not agree to follow different procedures in resolving disputes concerning Section 207-c matters, including the termination of Section 207-c disability benefits.

Finding that the collective bargaining agreement did not provide Gamma with the option of seeking arbitration or, in the alternative, judicial review, the court held that prior to the exhaustion of the contractual remedy of arbitration, judicial relief pursuant to CPLR article 78 is not warranted.

The court decided that the questions raised by Gamma must be submitted to arbitration as that was the exclusive remedy available to him under the collective bargaining agreement.

In another case involving essentially the same parties, Gamma v Ferrara, 274 AD2d 479, decided on the same day, the Appellate Division, Second Department, addressed the issue of the reinstatement of the payment of Section 207-c benefits to Gamma pending receipt of an arbitration award.

This appeal concerned Newburgh’s petition pursuant to Article 75 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules to compel arbitration of Gamma’s Section 207-c claims.

The court said:

... because the continuation of Gamma’s General Municipal Law Section 207-c benefits during the pendency of the arbitration cannot be sustained as provisional relief granted pursuant to CPLR 7502(c), in that the failure to grant such relief will not render any subsequent arbitration award in Gamma’s favor ineffectual, the grant of such relief must be reversed. If Gamma prevails after arbitration, he will be entitled to reimbursement of all benefits found to have been improperly denied.

This means that if Newburgh elects to discontinue its payment of Section 207-c benefits to Gamma pending receipt of the arbitrator’s determination, Gamma must charge his absences to his leave accruals or be placed on leave without pay.

The same rationale would probably be applied in cases involving disputes arising under Section 207-a of the General Municipal Law. Section 207-c applies to law enforcement personnel injured in the line of duty while Section 207-a covers firefighters injured in the line of duty.

General Municipal Law§§ 207-a and 207-c - a 1098 page e-book focusing on administering General Municipal Law Sections 207-a/207-c and providing benefits thereunder. Click on

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