A judge overturned an unsupported determination by the New York City Police Pension Fund Board of Trustees and granted a line-of-duty accidental disability retirement to an NYPD Sergeant who had suffered a stroke while searching for an armed murder suspect.
The trustees had only granted the sergeant an ordinary disability retirement following a 6 to 6 vote of the board. Under the law, when a police officer or firefighter suffers a heart attack or stroke there is a presumption that he or she be granted an accidental disability retirement. The medical board had found that the sergeant’s June 2010 stroke was caused by a congenital aneurysm that spontaneously ruptured. However, the court said the pension fund’s findings in this regard were “based on conjecture.”
The sergeant, then an 18-year veteran of the NYPD, was finishing her tour when a radio run came over regarding an armed murder suspect. She volunteered to investigate and selected a driver – a uniformed member of the service (MOS) – to assist. She and the other officer headed through traffic in their radio car toward an Upper West Side subway station where the suspect was reported to have been spotted. Upon arrival at the scene, the sergeant told her driver that she felt pain in her neck, was light-headed, and was developing a severe headache. Sensing something was seriously wrong, the driver rushed the sergeant to St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital. On the way there, she lost consciousness. The sergeant was later diagnosed with a ruptured aneurysm and a cerebral hemorrhage – a stroke.
The sergeant was admitted to the hospital for two-weeks, and then to Helen Hayes Rehab Center for in-patient rehabilitation. Her doctors said she suffered from cognitive, mobility, and self-care deficits because of the stroke. Thereafter, the sergeant applied for an accidental disability retirement, relying on the Heart/Stroke Bill, General Municipal Law §207-k. Generally, accidental disability benefits are three-quarters of the retiring officer’s annual salary and are non-taxable.
Normally, an officer seeking an accidental disability retirement has the burden of establishing that the disability was causally connected to a line-of-duty accident/injury. However, the law under the Heart/Stroke Bill states that where, like here, an officer passes physical and medical entry exams which failed to detect a health condition associated with heart disease or stroke, she shall be presumed to have suffered any subsequent heart ailment or stroke “in the performance and discharge of duty, unless the contrary be proved by competent evidence.” The theory behind the law is that not only are heart conditions and strokes occupational hazards for police officers and firefighters, but they are also unique conditions which generally are not the result of any particular incident but involve a gradual and progressive degeneration as a result of the continuous stresses and strains of the job.
Here, the court found that the medical board and the pension board failed to overcome the statutory presumption in favor of the officer with competent medical evidence. Instead, they simply argued that they didn’t know what caused the stroke. Accordingly, the court found that the decision to deny the sergeant’s request for an accidental disability retirement was “arbitrary and capricious.”
Thankfully, the judge had the wisdom to set this right and give the sergeant the justice she deserved.
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Matter of the Application of Kersellius v. Bratton, Index No. 100573/2014 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. County).