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U.S. Supreme Court to hear Fla. firefighter’s disability discrimination case

Lawyers for retired Sanford Firefighter Karyn Stanley argue that cutting her benefits violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment

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The Supreme Court as seen in Washington, March 7, 2024.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

By Martin E. Comas
Orlando Sentinel

SANFORD, Fla. — The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide if a Sanford firefighter can sue for discrimination because the city cut her disability benefits after she retired due to Parkinson’s disease.

“I’m seeking justice not only for me, but also for countless disabled firefighters and other disabled workers across the country who deserve to receive retirement benefits without discrimination,” Karyn Stanley, the retired firefighter, said in a text message provided to the Orlando Sentinel by one of her attorneys, Patricia Sigman of Lake Mary.

It’s an issue that affects millions of people with disabilities who rely on benefits from previous employers, and millions of future employees who will become disabled, Stanley’s lawyers said in their petition filed in March to the Supreme Court to hear the case — known as a writ of certiorari. The high court agreed Monday to take the case.

The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in October that Stanley could not sue Sanford under the Americans with Disabilities Act for the loss of her health insurance subsidy because she was no longer a city employee. Three other circuits around the country ruled the same way in similar lawsuits brought by former employees seeking to protect retirement benefits and claiming discrimination.

But rulings in two other circuits favored employees, stating that the ADA’s requirements are ambiguous and the law was created to protect workers.

Stanley asked the Supreme Court to settle the dispute in its next term, which begins Oct. 7 . The case is Stanley v. City of Sanford, Florida.

She was hired by the city as a firefighter in February 1999 and over the years climbed the career ladder to the rank of lieutenant.

In 2016, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. She continued working as a firefighter for two years until the disease and its accompanying physical disabilities made it impossible to continue.

She retired in November 2018 at age 47. As part of the city’s disability retirement package, Stanley received about $1,000 a month in benefits and the city paid her health insurance premiums.

What Stanley didn’t know was that in 2003 the city changed its benefits plan for disabled retirees while undergoing budget cuts during a difficult financial year.

Under the revised plan, disabled retirees receive health insurance for two years after leaving employment with the city. After that, former employees are responsible for their own health insurance and medical costs. Sanford employees can retire with full benefits after 25 years, but Stanley had logged just 20 years.

Stanley filed her lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida in Orlando in April 2020 — eight months before her disability benefits would stop.

Her lawsuit argues that by changing the benefits plan, Sanford violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. In effect, it said, the city’s decision to trim the health insurance subsidy was discriminatory against her as a disabled retiree.

“The reduction in the city’s health insurance subsidy did not equally apply to non-disabled retirees, who instead continue to receive the city’s health insurance subsidy to age 65,” Sigman said in court documents.

Her attorneys added that the city’s “discriminatory benefits policy … expressly treats disabled retirees worse than others.”

Justices with the lower court and appeals courts disagreed and dismissed the suit, ruling she could not sue the city for discrimination because she was no longer an employee.

“Because the ADA prohibits discrimination only to those individuals who hold or desire to hold a job, we reasoned that a former employee cannot bring suit” under the ADA, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

City officials and Jessica Conner, an Orlando attorney representing Sanford, would not comment.

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But in a court filing last month opposing Stanley’s petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, Conner stated that the former firefighter did not meet the full eligibility requirements for her benefits.

“Had she served 25 years, she would have received it regardless of her disability,” the filing states. “Although her reason for retiring early is indeed tragic, it did not render the denial of the subsidy to age 65 unlawful or even unfair.

“Non-disabled retirees with only 20 years of service also did not receive the subsidy to age 65, no matter how unfortunate their reasons for retiring early. In fact, [Stanley] was treated better than non-disabled retirees with the same amount of service because while they received no subsidy at all, [Stanley] received the subsidy for 24 months out of compassion for her disability.”

A city official said Tuesday that Stanley is still receiving retirement benefits from the Firefighter Pension Plan but did not provide additional details.

Stanley did not return calls for comment but responded through a text message sent by her attorney.

“I hope the court will rule that people like me don’t lose our legal protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act just because we’re retired,” Stanley said in the text message.

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