In a split decision, The Rhode Island Supreme Court has decided that the state Retirement Board was entitled to question a tax-free disability pension paid to a former Cranston police officer who objected after his pension was cut by the state.
The decision, released today, overturned a 2015 ruling by Superior Court Judge Netti Vogel that stated that the onetime police officer and now lawyer –John R. Grasso – could not have his pension reduced even though he has since found another occupation.
The court stated in the opinion authored by Justice William Robinson that the “specific purpose” of disability pensions for cops and firefighters is to give them pensions for injuries suffered on the job.
“We simply cannot say…that the intent and purpose of the statutes was to provide such a benefit for life regardless of whether or not the police officer or firefighter is still disabled or is able to earn from another source the same (or greater) income that he or she would have earned as a police officer,” stated the opinion.
Police officers and firefighters are eligible for tax-free disability pensions of about 67 percent of their salaries for life. Those pensions have long been the subject of political debate in Rhode Island, particularly in cases where those granted pensions have gone on to other jobs or been observed engaging in vigorous exercise, such as weightlifting.
A crucial issue before the court focused on what the General Assembly’s intent was when it approved the disability pension regime. Chief Justice Paul Suttell and Justice Francis Flaherty dissented from the 3 to 2 decision.
Suttell said that the legislative intent of the pension law was not ambiguous. Rather, he said, it was “very clear and crystalline” and specifically prescribes the allowance for police and firefighter disability and does not contain authority for reducing retirement payments.
“I might agree with my colleagues in the majority that, as a matter of policy, an accidental disability beneficiary…should be subject to periodic medical examinations if gainfully employed. The situation before us concerning Mr. Grasso is a prime example,” wrote Suttell.
Yet, the chief justice said, “there are legitimate reasons for treating police and firefighters who receive an accidental disability retirement allowance differently from other accidental disability beneficiaries. In my view, it is a question properly assigned to the legislature.”
Grasso is a Providence lawyer. His website says he focuses on criminal defense law.