Target 12

8 years and counting for police officer disability case; taxpayers still paying salary

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI)  -- It's been more than eight years since South Kingstown Police Officer Damon Borrelli was injured in a fender-bender and a confrontation, but after five accidental disability pension denials by the state, his case remains active.

It is currently the longest-running disability case of its kind by about two years, according to records reviewed by the Target 12 Investigators.

Neither Borrelli, who is now a practicing attorney, nor his attorney, Michael Lepizzera, would comment about the details of the dispute.

During the the eight-plus years since he last wore a South Kingstown badge, records we received from the town say Borrelli received full pay, plus contracted raises and bonuses for unused vacation and sick time, totaling just over $550,000, 

Lepizzera blamed delays in the process on the state retirement board, which operates under the auspices of the Rhode Island General Treasurer.

Evan England, the director of communications for the treasurer's office, said "Mr. Borrelli and his attorney have delayed the process at every step."

"The law states that accidental disability benefits should only be awarded to those with a work-related disability," England continued. "The Retirement Board ruled that Mr. Borrelli does not have a work-related disability, and this decision has been upheld through multiple appeals." 

On March 20, 2010, Borrelli was driving in an unmarked department sedan after working an "alcohol enforcement detail" when he was rear-ended, according to police reports. 

During a confrontation with the other driver, Borrelli alleged he was "slammed to the ground pretty hard" and hit multiple times. 

He has been listed on the South Kingstown Police Department roster under "job injury status" ever since.

Town manager Robert Zarnetske, who was hired in December, said the department has been "short-handed" since then.

"This is an extremely long period of time. It's been over eight years," Zarnetske said. "We're down a man. Everyone else has to pitch in a little harder. It can take a toll on morale and the ability to plan." 

According to retirement board filings, Borrelli's first application for an accidental disability pension was filed in 2011, but it was incomplete.

Records show he re-filed 13 months later, stating his medical issue was  a "back injury and PTSD." 

Over the the next five years, he would be denied five times after filing multiple appeals.

About three years into the process, Borrelli claimed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as the sole reason he could not return to work as a police officer.

The pension board filings indicate Borrelli has been examined by several doctors, picked independently by the state, with one concluding the officer "was disabled as a result of the accident," referring to the physical injuries.

But he concluded the PTSD claim "is without merit."

That doctor and one other stated that while Borrelli suffers from PTSD, the condition was pre-existing.  

Borrelli has submitted two "physician's statements" that said he "is disabled as a result of" the March 2010 accident.

A third doctor's statement submitted by Borrelli claimed he was not treated for PTSD until about a year after the accident, supporting the claim it was not a pre-existing condition.

England echoed the board's determination. 

"The Retirement Board does not believe Officer Borrelli has a work-related disability," England said. "The matter has been out of the hands of the Retirement Board since the final denial was issued two years ago."

After the case ran its course with the pension board, Borrelli took it to Superior Court and could eventually appeal it to the state Supreme Court if he loses.

The high court would have the option to consider it or pass.

If Borrelli runs out of legal options, the town would then have to decide whether or not to terminate his employment, which would take even more time. 

"I don't think anyone thought we'd be down a man and still with quite a ways away from a resolution," Zarnetske said. 

Over the years, Borrelli went to law school, passed the bar, and now has 31 open cases, according to court records. 

Zarnetske pointed out South Kingstown did not oppose his application but eight years later, he does question the process.

"We respect due process, but the wheels of justice need to move at an appropriate speed to ensure the taxpayers are protected," Zarnetske said.  

Borrelli potentially qualifies for a standard disability pension, which would pay him 50 percent of his salary, untaxed. The accidental disability pension pays 66 percent.

His pension case has been assigned to Associate Justice Joseph Montalbano, with a control date to potentially check on the status scheduled for next month. 

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau


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