RI Supreme Court forces Providence to reconsider firefighter’s disability pension

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled Monday the Providence Retirement Board “misconstrued” a city ordinance when it denied a city firefighter’s request for a tax-free disability pension in 2012.

The ruling means the board must reconsider Michael Morse’s petition for an accidental disability pension, which stems from an injury he suffered while lifting a patient at Rhode Island Hospital in August 2012.

“The case is remanded to the retirement board with directions to reconsider the application in conformity with this opinion,” the high court wrote in its decision.

The retirement board voted unanimously to deny Morse the accidental disability pension in 2013, citing a “unanimity” policy that required three doctors to agree that he was disabled. Two doctors did find that Morse could no longer work, but a third doctor determined that he should not qualify for a disability pension.

Morse argued that the board had no right to adopt a “unanimity” policy that was not spelled out in the city ordinance that explains how a city employee can obtain a disability pension.

The high court agreed.

Describing the ordinance as “not well drafted” and “certainly not clear and unambiguous,” the court determined the City Council “could not possibly have intended the retirement board’s proceedings to be curtailed by the opinion of one physician” and the board should not have interpreted it that way.

“The board’s adoption of the unanimity rule effectively abandoned its authority to a single disagreeing physician,” the court wrote.

Morse, who was hired in 1991 and eventually become a rescue captain, has remained on the city payroll since his 2012 injury. He is currently earning $74,673 annually, but is considered injured on duty.

A spokesperson for the Elorza administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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