R.I. firefighter sues over suspension of disability pension

John Sauro, who went out on disability and then was seen pumping iron, has filed a lawsuit accusing city officials of violating his constitutional rights


The Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — John Sauro, the former firefighter who suffered an on-the-job injury, went out on disability and then was seen in a TV news exposé pumping iron, has filed a lawsuit accusing city officials of violating his constitutional rights.

Sauro and his wife, Karen, allege in the suit in Superior Court that the city's suspension of his $3,902-a-month, accidental-disability pension is part of a campaign of harassment, retaliation and misconduct by officials against John Sauro.

The complaint asks for a preliminary injunction reinstating the pension, and a hearing on the request is under way.

The Providence Retirement Board suspended Sauro's pension in December in a dispute over his willingness to submit to a follow-up medical examination to confirm that he remains disabled from work.

Just as an undercover video was central to the TV news exposé, a second undercover video has become crucial to the city's inquiry into Sauro's status.

Sauro told the city that he was too sick to go to the follow-up medical exam in Massachusetts. But a surveillance video by a city-hired private detective shows him driving around Cranston, Providence and Warwick, seemingly unimpaired, running errands.

In a multimillion-dollar claim to the city, Sauro alleged that city officials singled him out for illegally unfair and discriminatory treatment regarding his medical condition and his pension. After the city turned down the claim, the Sauros went to court against the board.

Sauro was injured in 1998 while carrying a heavy person down a flight of stairs, suffering a dislocated shoulder and a torn rotator cuff.

Doctors concluded that he was totally disabled from doing the work of a firefighter, and the city awarded him an accidental-disability pension in 2000. Due to the "specific nature" of the injury, in the words of the suit, Sauro was deemed not to be a candidate for corrective surgery.

Sauro nevertheless "followed his doctor's advice" and embarked on a long-term program of rehabilitation that included lifting weights and "steadily strengthened the undamaged portions of his right shoulder ...," the suit states.

His situation was brought to light in April 2011 when Channel 12 (WPRI) broadcast an exposé in which the station reported that he had a strenuous weightlifting regimen in a fitness center.

The news report instigated a criminal investigation of the possibility that Sauro was defrauding the pension system, but the investigation resulted in no action. Mayor Angel Taveras deplored as "outrageous" the spectacle of Sauro weightlifting in an undercover news video despite his supposed disability.

On Friday, Taveras declined comment on the suit.

Sauro also alleges that two members of the Retirement Board, John J. Igliozzi, a City Council member, and Kerion O'Mara, a police officer disabled because of a gunshot wound, publicly accused him of "fraud," and that the city changed its retirement ordinance in its attempt to deny him his rightful pension.

In mid-2011, the city required Sauro to undergo a reexamination of his disability by an orthopedic shoulder specialist, and the physician concluded that Sauro remained totally disabled.

The specialist, Dr. Anthony M. DeLuise Jr., also suggested that Sauro undergo a "functional capacity test," which he did not administer, that could show whether Sauro was capable of light duty or sedentary work. He also suggested that fresh x-rays and an examination with magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, be done.

Any light duty, DeLuise said in a report, would have to be preceded by a psychological evaluation.

As a matter of law, Sauro argues, the DeLuise examination "should have been the end of any further investigation" of the disability. But the city in 2013 ordered Sauro to undergo additional medical testing and the Retirement Board concluded that Sauro refused to comply.

It was that conclusion that prompted the pension suspension. But Sauro contends that he was unable to go to another exam because his physical and mental health had deteriorated and his psychologist and psychiatrist told him not to travel.

The detective's surveillance on Sept. 12 and Sept. 13, 2013, debunks that excuse, the board contends. Sept. 12 was the day that Karen Sauro and John Sauro's lawyer informed the city that Sauro was "severely incapacitated" and could not go to the follow-up exam scheduled for Sept. 13.

Sauro stated in the suit that other retired firefighters and police officers who are working full-time jobs while collecting disability checks from the city have not been ordered to undergo the same follow-up exams to which he has been subjected.

As the result of the alleged violation of his state and federal constitutional rights, Sauro said that he has lost reputation and enjoyment of life, suffered humiliation and mental and emotional anguish, and incurred medical and legal expenses, among other damages.

He also alleges that the city breached a contract with him, illegally took his private property, intentionally inflicted emotional distress and damaged his marriage.

In addition to pension reinstatement, the Sauros seek a permanent injunction barring the board from further interfering with the pension, expungement from city records of "false charges" against him, and unstated compensatory financial damages and legal costs.

Copyright 2014 The Providence Journal
All Rights Reserved

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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