Eligibility for police disability benefits; Construction of municipal ordinance and collective bargaining agreement provisions

Massi v. City of Chester Aggregated Pension Board, 2018 WL 3431728 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2018) (unreported), allocatur granted Apr. 16, 2019, appeal docket 38 MAP 2019

The Supreme Court granted allocatur in this case to address the Commonwealth court’s reversal of the City of Chester Aggregated Pension Board’s denial of disability benefits to a police officer who was disabled as the result of a work-related injury but who did not apply for disability benefits until he was already retired; at issue is the interpretation of city ordinances and a collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

Captain Massi of the Chester City police department voluntarily entered the department’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) after 20 years of service in 2009.  The DROP permits an officer otherwise eligible to retire to continue to work and receive his salary, but also commence receipt of pension benefits which are paid into a trust account and accumulated until actual retirement; the DROP requires an “irrevocable commitment” to terminate city service as a police officer no later than 5 years after entering the DROP.  Massi’s mandatory DROP retirement date was June 30, 2014.

Massi sustained work-related injuries in 2013 and again in February 2014 and underwent a cervical spine fusion in February 2014.  He was informed by his doctors that a medical assessment and determination as to whether he was capable of returning to work as a police officer could not be completed until February 2015, after his mandatory DROP retirement deadline.  Unable to return to work, Massi received workers’ compensation benefits, and then on June 30, 2014, he separated from service as a police officer, received his DROP accumulated pension benefits, and began receiving regular pension benefits, which were paid at 50% of his average salary for the last 3 years.

In March 2015, Massi was informed by his doctors that that he was disabled by his work-related injuries and he applied for disability benefits, which are calculated at 100% of wages for the 12 months prior to retirement.  The City of Chester’s ordinance on disability benefits provided:

Beginning January 1, 1982, any police officer who becomes permanently and totally disabled as a result of a disability incurred while in the actual performance of his or her duty and who, by reason thereof, is unable to perform his or her duties as a member of the police force shall be entitled upon application to the [Pension] Board to retire and to receive a monthly pension until death or reinstatement. Such pension shall be in an amount equal to one hundred percent (100%) of said police officer’s average monthly earnings reportable or reported on the police officer’s W-2 form in the twelve month period prior to his or her retirement.

The governing CBA contained a similar provision:

Any Police Office [sic] who becomes permanently and totally disabled as a result of a disability incurred while in the actual performance of his or her duty and who, by reason thereof, is unable to perform his or her duties as a member of the police force shall be entitled to retire and to receive a monthly pension. Such pension shall be in an amount equal to one hundred percent (100%) of said Police Officer’s average monthly earnings reportable or reported in the police officer’s W-2 Form for the twelve (12) month period prior to his or her retirement.

The DROP ordinance provisions also addressed disability, as follows:

If a DROP Participant applies for, and the [Pension] Board grants, a service connected disability retirement benefit under Section 143.03(d) or (f), the member shall be terminated from the DROP and separated from service with the City to begin a service connected disability retirement benefit annuity and to receive the DROP Benefit, as provided in Section 143.24(i), with the service-connected disability retirement benefit being based on the compensation and service levels as determined at the DROP Entry Date.

Slip Op. n. 3.

The pension board denied disability benefits, reasoning that Massi’s application was untimely because a completed application was not received prior to his separation date of June 30, 2014. Because Massi was no longer a DROP participant at the time of his application but rather a retiree, the Pension Board concluded that he was ineligible for a service-connected disability pension. Massi appealed to the court of common pleas, which reversed on the basis of a de novo hearing, reasoning that Massi sustained his disabling injury before his separation from the police force, and that there was no time restriction in the ordinance or CBA limiting when a service-connected disability claim had to be filed.

The pension board appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which reversed, thereby reinstating the denial of disability benefits.  The Commonwealth Court reasoned that all three applicable disability provisions required that the applicant for disability benefits be a police officer at the time application for disability is made, and Massi separated from service as a police officer and became a retiree nine months before he filed his application:

It is undisputed that Massi did not file his application letter with the City until March 2015, nine months after he voluntarily separated from his employment. As such, he was no longer a police officer at the time of his application, but a retiree, and there is nothing in the Ordinance or the CBA which even suggests that a retiree can apply to change his normal retirement benefit to a service-connected disability benefit. … If we were to accept Massi’s and the trial court’s interpretation of the Ordinance and the CBA, there would be no time limitation upon an officer applying for disability benefits. In effect, a police officer could retire and file an application for service-connected disability benefits 5, 10, 15 years down the line – basically, at any point in time after he was able to obtain medical documentation supporting his contention that he was permanently and totally disabled by reason of his work-related injury – and the officer would then be entitled to disability benefits retroactive to the date of his injury. This is not a reasonable interpretation of Article 143.03(f) of the Ordinance or Article XXIII(1) of the CBA, and the trial court erred in determining otherwise.

Slip Op. at 13-14. The Supreme Court has granted allocatur to review the denial of disability benefits.  The issues, as stated by Massi, are:

(1) May a municipal employer infringe upon the vested right of a city employee by imposing restrictions not specifically contained in its disability ordinance or its agreed-upon collective bargaining agreement?

(2) May a police officer rely upon the terms of a collective bargaining agreement which sets forth no deadlines for claiming a disability pension in making such application after his technical date of retirement?

(3) Absent language to the contrary, does a police officer vest in entitlement to a disability pension on the date of his injury, and, absent language to the contrary, should the time of confirmation of the disability, and not the date of application, be determinative of a disability pension eligibility?

(4) Does a police officer who has retired forfeit the ability to seek the protection of his collective bargaining agreement, and cease to be considered as a police officer once his retirement has taken effect?

Allocatur grants present an excellent opportunity for your group or association to advance your legal and policy goals by filing an amicus brief. Participating as an amicus has proven to be an effective method of advising and influencing courts and often can involve far fewer resources than traditional lobbying.

If you are interested or would like more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.