April 8, 2022

A probationary firefighter injured while participating in an approved basic firefighter training program is eligible for General Municipal Law §207-a disability benefits

Less than six months after being appointed as a full-time probationary firefighter by the City of Norwich the Plaintiff in the CPLR Article 78 action attended the Binghamton Fire Academy to complete an approved required training program. While practicing for one of the required physical tests, Plaintiff sustained an injury and was unable to complete the training or return to active duty. He subsequently applied for benefits pursuant to General Municipal Law §207-a, but Norwich denied his application contending that Plaintiff's injury did not occur in the course of his  performance of his official duties. 

As the collective bargaining agreement between the City and Plaintiff's union contained no provision for an administrative appeal of the denial of §207-a benefits, Plaintiff commenced a combined CPLR Article 78 and action for declaratory judgment proceeding seeking a court order annulling the City's determination, contending it was arbitrary and capricious and in violation of General Municipal Law §207-a.

Supreme Court rejected the City's argument that Plaintiff's "alleged injury occurred while training, not as a result of the performance of his duties" and held that the denial of Plaintiff's application for General Municipal Law §207-a benefits was arbitrary and capricious, which ruling the Appellate Division sustained upon Norwich's appeal.*

Explaining that "An action is arbitrary and capricious when it is taken without sound basis in reason or regard to the facts," the Appellate Division observed that General Municipal Law §207-a provides for the payment of the full amount of regular salary or wages to a firefighter who is injured "in the performance of" or "as a result of" his or her job duties.

Further, said the court, "[t]o be eligible for benefits, a firefighter need only demonstrate 'a direct causal relationship between job duties and the resulting illness or injury" without regard to whether the specific injury-causing activity was one entailing the 'heightened risk' posed to firefighters." The court also noted that General Municipal Law §209-w requires that probationary firefighters, such as Plaintiff, complete an approved basic training program within a proscribed period of time following initial appointment.

Although Plaintiff was injured while practicing for the candidate physical ability test, a mandatory component of the required training and which had not occurred in the course of his actual performance of the required test, the Appellate Division opined that "successful completion of the candidate physical ability test was a necessary requirement of Plaintiff's position." Thus, said the court, Plaintiff "was engaged in the expected and foreseeable task of practicing for that test during a mandatory training program that was part of his duties as a probationary firefighter."**

Noting that §207-a[1] provides that payment of benefits shall be made to "[a]ny paid firefighter which term as used in this section shall mean any paid officer or member of an organized fire company or fire department of a city of less than one million population, ... who is injured in the performance of his or her duties," the Appellate Division concluded that statute applies to "any paid . . . member" of a municipal fire department and draws no distinction between certified and noncertified firefighters." Indeed, observed the Appellate Division, had the Legislature had intended to restrict General Municipal Law §207-a eligibility to only those firefighters who had obtained the required certification of basic training at the time of their injury, "it easily could have and surely would have written the statute to say so."

The bottom line: Benefits provided pursuant to General Municipal Law §207-a are available to both certified and noncertified paid firefighter[s] injured in the performance of their duties, including training required to qualify for the position.

Editor's note: In Cheryl M. Smith v County of Erie, et al., 210 AD2d 933, a probationary police officer injured during training was held eligible for General Municipal Law §207-c disability retirement benefits. 

* As the City of Norwich's administrative determination was made without having conducted an evidentiary hearing otherwise required by law, judicial review is limited to determining whether the City's determination had a rational basis and was not arbitrary and capricious.

** The Appellate Division also noted that Plaintiff "was attending the Fire Academy at the direction of the City that the training was paid for by the City and that [Plaintiff] was receiving full pay for his attendance and participation in the program."

Click HERE to access the Appellate Division's decision posted on the Internet.

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