Board revokes retired firefighter's disability pension

He had been collecting for a dislocated shoulder and torn rotator cuff suffered when he helped to carry a heavy person down a flight of stairs in 1998

The Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Fifteen years after the city released firefighter John Sauro with a job-related disability pension, the Retirement Board declared Wednesday that he no longer qualifies for it.

The city board terminated Sauro's $3,902-a-month tax-free accidental-disability pension, effective immediately. He had been collecting for a dislocated shoulder and torn rotator cuff suffered when he helped to carry a heavy person down a flight of stairs in 1998.

The Sauro case has been widely publicized because he was the subject of a TV news exposé in which he was shown on an undercover video during a vigorous workout at a fitness center, lifting heavy weights despite the injury.

“Based on recertification of medical records,” Sauro “no longer qualifies for an accidental disability,” the board voted unanimously. Board Chairman Lawrence J. Mancini said after the meeting at City Hall that the injury “no longer rendered him disabled.”

Board members gave no details to back up their conclusion, due to rules regarding medical confidentiality.

Sauro, who already has a multimillion-dollar lawsuit pending against the city for its actions regarding his pension, insisted in a telephone interview that he is not healed and that the private reports of his latest examination by a physician prove it.

Denouncing the latest board decision as “politics,” he said that he must confer with his lawyer before he can say what his next step will be.

“I’m the most disabled guy in the Fire Department” with a shoulder injury, Sauro said. There are other firefighters with lesser shoulder impairments, he contended, whose pensions never have been challenged.

His multiple illnesses and injuries have shriveled his 6-foot-3-inch frame to 150 pounds and he has difficulty walking, he added. Sauro said in his lawsuit that he stopped pumping iron after the TV news report, at least in part because of his resulting notoriety.

He has said that he worked out on the advice of a physician in order to improve his physical and mental well-being. For psychological reasons, he has said, a physician deemed him to be a poor candidate for corrective surgery that might have enabled him to return to duty.

Mayor Jorge Elorza said in a statement, “It was apparent to anyone who watched the video that Mr. Sauro was abusing our public disability pension system. I commend the Retirement Board for taking the appropriate action in voting to discontinue Mr. Sauro’s accidental-disability pension.

“This sends a clear message that abuse of our public resources will not be tolerated.”

The city has a process to recertify disabilities in order to confirm that a disability continues to be justified. When the board ordered him to undergo reexamination by Dr. Brian McKeon in Massachusetts, Sauro said he was too ill to go.

The board disagreed and suspended his pension in December in an effort to force him to go. Sauro then sued in Superior Court but failed in an attempt to obtain a preliminary injunction to have his pension reinstated while the suit played out.

After that, Sauro capitulated and submitted to the reexamination. Given his compliance with the order, the board voted in March to reinstate his pension temporarily. By the time of the followup vote Wednesday, though, he had not been sent a check.

After reviewing McKeon’s reports and related medical documentation in a closed meeting, the board’s medical subcommittee reported Wednesday that Sauro no longer is eligible for the pension. The full board then voted 12-0 to discontinue it.

Quoting McKeon’s report, Sauro said he continues to suffer from a separated right shoulder with a ruptured ligament, a torn labrum and two torn tendons, among other ailments in other parts of his body.

In order to be eligible for a disability pension, an employee must be totally and permanently disabled from doing the work the employee was doing. An accidental-disability pension is awarded only if the disability is job-related.

The fight over Sauro’s pension began after the exposé in April 2011. Sauro said Wednesday that the city has been engaged in “extortion” in order to force him to accept a lesser pension.

The other types of pensions are ordinary disability, for an employee whose disability is not job-related, and service. A service pension is based solely on an employee having worked for a certain number of years and having attained a certain age.

Sauro and his wife have city-paid medical insurance that has been unaffected by the pension fight.

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