Oregon Supreme Court Rules in Important Fire Fighter Disability Case

Column by Contributing Fire Law Author Mark Gerano

On October 30th, the Oregon Supreme Court issued its decision in John Miller, et. al., v. City of Portland, 356 Or. 402 (2014). The case has important implications for municipalities and fire fighters regarding disability benefits.

The question in Miller centered on whether a municipality can change a fire fighter’s “required duties” to require the fire fighter to return to duty despite previously being deemed disabled. The Plaintiffs in Miller were fire fighters for the City of Portland when they became disabled in the line of duty.

The Portland City Charter requires the City to provide disability benefits to its police officers and fire fighters who sustain injuries in the line of duty. Miller, 356 Or. 402, 404. At the time the fire fighters became disabled, the City of Portland determined that the disability rendered the fire fighters “unable to perform their ‘required duties,’” and began to pay them disability benefits. Id. Several years after determining the fire fighters were disabled and after paying disability benefits for several years, the City instituted a “Return to Work” policy and created new job “assignments” that “included some of the duties within the job classifications that [the fire fighters] had held when they were injured.” Id. Because the City felt that the fire fighters could perform the “required duties” of the new job assignments, the City required the disabled fire fighters to return to work and discontinued their disability benefits. Id.   Several of the fire fighters returned to the new jobs, however one did not and as a result, his disability benefits were terminated. Id. at 408.

The fire fighters filed suit in Oregon state court alleging the City breached the contract with them to provide disability benefits. After a complex procedural dispute, the fire fighters lost in both the trial court and in the court of appeals. The fire fighters then appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court. The Oregon Supreme Court found that the term “required duties” meant a fire fighter’s “core duties.” Id. at 414-415. Although fire fighters perform ancillary tasks such as inspections and public education, the “core duties” of a fire fighter are to perform fire suppression and associated tasks. The Court discussed that although there was a new job “classification” the core duties of a fire fighter remained unchanged, and for this reason, the fire fighter’s were still disabled such that they cannot perform their “required duties.” The Court found that the City, at most, showed that it had assigned fire fighters to a “subset of the duties included in the job classifications that [the fire fighters] held when they became disabled.” Id. at 419. Notwithstanding the City’s decision to assign the fire fighters to these new duties, the “required duties” of a fire fighter, the “core duties” of the position, did not change. Accordingly, because of their disabilities, the fire fighters were likely still entitled to benefits. The Oregon Supreme Court sent the case back to a lower court to conduct a further inquiry on the issues.

This case is important to fire departments all across the United States. Communities are frequently seeking ways to get injured and disabled fire fighters back on the job. Prior to attempting to compel a fire fighter to return to work in a new position, a fire department should think carefully about the legal implications.

Here is a copy of the ruling: Miller v Portland

Mark Gerano, Esq. is an Associate in the law firm of Dinsmore & Shohl in Cincinnati, Ohio. Mark was a Fire Lieutenant at the Mason, Ohio Fire Department, where he served in a number of roles including managing the department’s EMS services, public education, and training. He was also President of IAFF Local 4049.

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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