Public Employee Loses Bid For Disability Retirement Because Injury Was Not Disabling Soon Enough

A public employee may be entitled to accidental disability retirement if the employee becomes permanently disabled from their job because of an injury or hazard undergone in the performance of their duty. Under Massachusetts law, Accidental Disability Retirement (ADR) provides these employees with 72 percent of their salary (based upon earnings from most recent 12 months or at the time of injury). This money is not subject to state or federal taxation.

In the 1996 decision Vest v. Contributory Retirement Appeal Bd., 41 Mass. App. Ct. 191, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled that a public employee no longer employed for a Massachusetts government employer is eligible for ADR so long as the work-related injury was disabling at the time the employee left work (In Vest, the employee was retired). In other words, an employee injured on the job but whose disability does not fully materialize until after public employment may be ineligible – even if there is no dispute that the disability was caused by the work.

In the recent decision of Soucy v. Contributory Retirement Appeal Board, #06-P-551 (July 13, 2007), the Court affirmed the principles behind Vest and rejected arguments to limit their scope. Soucy was injured on in the job in January 1997 and was out of work until January 1998. She worked until August 2001, when she was laid off. At the time of the layoff, she remained in pain from the 1997 injury, but still was able to work as a teacher with some difficulty. Subsequently, she filed for Workers Compensation and, later still, ADR. She ultimately received a lump sum payment under Workers Compensation that was equivalent to 2.5 years of wages. A medical panel agreed with Soucy that she was permanently disabled from her job and that this disability occurred in the course of her job as a teacher. Still, as the complete disability was not developed at the time of her layoff in September 2001, her application for ADR was rejected because she technically was not a member of the Teachers’ Retirement System at the time the injury became disabling.

Soucy argued that the holding of Vest should not apply because her injury, while not disabling as of August 2001, became disabling during a period for which arguably was covered by Workers Compensation. The Court rejected this argument, saying that she stopped being a “member in service” eligible for ADR as of August 2001.

Massachusetts public employees facing retirement, termination, or layoff and who are considering the possibility of a future claim for work-related disability retirement, therefore are advised to seek medical confirmation of the disability prior to leaving employment.

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