Firefighter whose disability pension was revoked plans to sue city

John Sauro (WPRI 12)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Retired Providence firefighter John Sauro – who was collecting a tax-free disability pension when he was seen in Target 12 undercover video lifting weights – has filed a notice with city officials that he intends to sue the city for $7 million for taking away his pension.

The “notice of claim” was filed Friday afternoon by Sauro’s attorney, Joseph Voccola, and alleges the city’s actions caused “serious mental anguish and emotional distress, bodily injury, anxiety, ridicule, humiliation, indignity, loss of enjoyment of life,” among other claims.

In response Providence Mayor Angel Taveras said “we’ll see him in court.”

“We’ll do everything that we have to do to defend the city,” Taveras said. “We’ll also defend the system and make sure that someone who is not entitled to a disability pension does not have recourse.”

Sauro said he suffered a shoulder injury in 1998 carrying someone down stairs while on the job as a firefighter. He was awarded a tax-free accidental disability pension in 2000.

In 2011, Sauro was seen in Target 12 undercover video working out vigorously, including lifting weights.

In the notice, Sauro’s lawyers argue an independent medical exam (IME) after the report showed he was still unfit to return to work.

The city later requested Sauro be examined by a shoulder specialist in Waltham, Mass., but Sauro refused, saying his doctors said he was too sick to travel out of state. After a series of attempts to reschedule the appointment, the city eventually moved to revoke Sauro’s pension due to his failure to recertify his injury.

Last July, the Providence Retirement Board suspended Sauro’s pension benefits immediately on an 11-0 vote, citing “new evidence.”

“Claimant’s pension was suspended arbitrarily and without cause, as Claimant did not ‘refuse’ to attend the [independent medical exam] as ordered,” the notice failed by Sauro’s lawyer states, “but was complying with the direct orders of his two physicians not to attend the long distance IME for serious medical reasons.”

According to the notice, the new evidence cited is video from a private investigator hired by the city that shows Sauro out and about running errands. The city used the video to show that Sauro was not bedridden.

In the notice, Sauro’s lawyers claim he was aware he was being followed and the city set him up to be captured on tape.

“The City portrayed these events in a completely different light, by making a mockery of the fact that claimant is primarily bedridden and used to deception by making it appear that claimant was just our joyriding around as an everyday routine,” the notice states.

Sauro’s lawyers say on that day he was out obtaining a doctor’s note at the order of the city’s human resources director, Sybil Bailey, as to why he couldn’t attend the medical exam.

As a result of being followed, Sauro’s lawyers said he suffered a panic attack the next day and had to be hospitalized.

“[The city] failed to advise [the Retirement Board] that they tricked claimant into having to travel to his doctor’s and related places so they could follow claimant and make it appear that he was willfully disobeying the order to attend the out of state IME,” the notice states.

“I believe our actions have been appropriate,” Taveras said.  “I believe the court will find them appropriate, and we will seek all remedies under the law.”

Sauro’s lawyers argue his condition – both mental and physical – was so bad that his doctors said it would be “life-threatening” if he travelled to Massachusetts.

The notice also raises questions about the doctor the city chose for the IME, saying he went to the same university as Providence Mayor Angel Taveras.

“Dr. Brian McKeon and Mayor Angel Taveras are Georgetown University Alumni, graduating in 1993 and 1996, respectively,” the notice states.

The city has 40 days to respond to the notice before it can be filed in superior court.

Taveras said he thinks it’s important to taxpayers to see this case through adding “it’s also important to all the people who have a disability and are unable to work.”

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter: @white_tim

Eyewitness News reporter Jared Pliner contributed to this report.

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