RI Supreme Court Reverses Denial Of Disability Pension

The Rhode Island Supreme Court has reversed a decision by the City of Providence’s Retirement Board that denied a disability pension to Rescue Captain Michael Morse. The decision was handed down yesterday.

Mike, who is a well known author and blogger, injured his back in 2012 while lifting a patient. He was unable to return to work and sought a disability pension. As is customary in such cases, he was sent to three doctors for evaluation. Two of the three doctors that examined him concluded that his injuries left him unable to return to work, while the third concluded he could return.

When his case came before the Retirement Board of the Employees Retirement System of the City of Providence, it was denied based upon the board’s requirement that the doctors all agree. The case was appealed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court who yesterday handed down a ruling sending that case back to the pension board for reconsideration.

From the ruling:

  • The petitioner argues that the board’s decision should be quashed because the board committed an error of law by interpreting the Providence Code of Ordinances § 17-189(6) to require unanimity of the three IMEs in determining that petitioner is totally and permanently disabled as the result of a work-related injury before it will grant petitioner accidental disability benefits. The petitioner asserts that adopting such a rule is contrary to the plain language of the ordinance and that the effect of such a determination is that the board has abdicated all discretion and responsibility to consider applications for an accidental disability pension under the ordinance by deferring to the opinion of a single disagreeing physician.
  • [W]e hold that the board’s interpretation that the ordinance requires unanimity of the evaluating physicians would lead to an absurd result.
  • We … conclude that the Providence City Council could not possibly have intended the retirement board’s proceedings to be curtailed by the opinion of one physician.
  • [W]e are of the opinion that the retirement board impermissibly wrote a unanimity requirement into the ordinance.
  • The duty of the board is to review each member’s application for accidental disability retirement fairly, to cautiously review the medical evidence, to make factual findings on the record, and to articulate its reasons for either granting or denying a member’s application pursuant to those factual findings.
  • The board’s adoption of the unanimity rule effectively abandoned its authority to a single disagreeing physician. Because the board failed to make any factual findings with regard to the petitioner’s application, this matter must be remanded to the board for reconsideration.
  • In so doing, the board must consider all of the evidence before it, indicating explicitly the reasons for finding the evaluation of one doctor to be more persuasive than the evaluations of the other two independent evaluations and those of the petitioner’s several treating physicians, and articulate its reasoning for either granting or denying the petitioner’s application.

Here is a copy of the decision: Morse v Retirement Board

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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