Rhode Island state and local government have grappled with police and firefighter disability pensions for many years. Now, as RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay explains, two recent Rhode Island Supreme Court have gone against police and firefighters.
In two recent cases, Rhode Island’s highest court has decided against cops and firefighters who were collecting disability pensions for injuries they suffered on the job. In the first one, the court decided the state Retirement Board was entitled to question the pension granted to a former Cranston police officer who objected after his payments were reduced by the state.
This matter involved John Grasso, a former cop who is now a Providence lawyer. The opinion stated that the purpose of disability for police and firefighters is to make them whole for job-related injuries. In an opinion authored by Justice William Robinson, III, the court stated that the intent of the law wasn’t to give a first responder a pension for life if he or she finds another career and earns as much or more money that the pension amount.
The second case involved what many taxpayers would view as a scam. It involved a Providence firefighter, John Sauro, who received a disability pension after a shoulder injury. His hurt his shoulder in 1999 while carrying a man down a flight of stairs. He retired on accidental disability a year later.
Then, in 2011, Sauro was caught on camera by WPRI-Channel 12 vigorously lifting weights at a gym. That led Providence city government to question Sauro’s status and revoke his $3,900 monthly pension.
The Supreme Court didn’t question the need for disability pensions for cops and firefighters. Neither should anyone else. These first responders have among the toughest and most vital jobs in our society. They are the people who fight crime and save lives fighting fires. They are the EMT’s who take us safely to the hospital after a car accident or heart attack.
These folks work in noble professions. Their challenges are getting steeper, particularly with in a society with way too many guns on the streets. Not to mention school shootings.
If they get hurt providing these services to the public, they deserve the taxpayers’ support. A disability pension grants an injured cop or firefighter a tax-free pension worth about 67 percent of salary for life. They also get medical care. This ensures that they don’t faced bankruptcy or poverty because of a job-related mishap.
Yet, too often over the years, Rhode Islanders have seen some of these injured first responders game the system. The case of Sauro, the weightlifting former firefighter, is just one example. The high court struck down a lower court ruling that said Sauro could keep his pension. The city has paid him about $632,000 in pension benefits since his injury. No decision has been made on whether Providence will seek to recover some of that.
In Rhode Island’s quilt-work retirement system, some police and firefighter pensions are controlled by the state, others by cities and towns. State Treasurer Seth Magaziner, who runs the state pensions, says he is pleased the Supreme Court has ruled in these two cases. Disability pensions, Magaziner says, are designed to help those legitimately injured.
“We shouldn’t be giving a disability pensions to people who aren’t disabled and are earning a million dollars a year in another line of work,” says Magaziner.
He points out that those who abuse the system make it difficult to keep benefits intact for the future.
The good news is that these Supreme Court precedents will make things honest. There are about 15 such disability cases in various stages of the judicial system that will probably be affected by these precedents.
These two decisions were not easy. In both cases there were dissenting justices. In the Grasso matter, both Chief Justice Paul Suttell and Justice Frank Flaherty protested the decision. In the Sauro case, Flaherty again dissented.
The court debates focused on the intent of the General Assembly and whether the laws were vaguely written. There’s a solution here. That would be for the Assembly to review the laws and change them.
Given the influence of the police and firefighter unions at the Statehouse, don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our “On Politics” blog at RIPR.org