The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, as we’ve indicated frequently on this blog, has issued a number of decisions that are unfavorable, and occasionally hostile, to public employees in general and public safety employees in particular. However, in Retirement Bd. of Salem v. Contributory Retirement Appeal Bd, SJC-10215 (February 24, 2009), the SJC granted a huge victory to public employees.
In this case, a public employee suffered a disabling heart attack upon being told by her supervisor that her job was being eliminated in a few months. After work and within one hour of hearing this news, the employee suffered a heart attack. She was briefly hospitalized. She never returned to work. Instead, she immediately filed for an accidental disability retirement, which generally provides 72 percent of the employee’s recent salary, pursuant to M.G.L. c.32, §7.
A public employee who suffers a mental or emotional disability as a result of a “bona fide personnel action” (i.e., a legitimate transfer, demotion, etc) is ineligible for accidental disability retirement. Here, the Retirement Board denied benefits because it claimed that the heart attack arose from news of a bona fide personnel action. The SJC disagreed, ruling that the physical, as opposed to emotional/mental, injuries that result from a bona fide personnel action remain eligible for accidental disability retirement. In other words, Chapter 32, §7 denies accidental disability retirement benefits to employees who, for instance, suffer a permanent psychological disability as a result of layoff news, but does not deny benefits if the exact same news results in a permanent physical disability.
In the decision, the SJC also affirmed that disabling injuries, to qualify for accidental disability retirement, must occur while working and not merely “at work.” In other words, the employee likely would not have been eligible for benefits had the heart attack resulted from learning at work about a family tragedy. The SJC concluded here that the employee’s injury arose during the performance of work duties given that she was ordered to participate in a meeting with her supervisor.