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‘Broken system’ for state worker injuries is costing RI taxpayers millions

Target 12

Courtrooms short-staffed due in part to high number of injured sheriffs

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – In 2009, Rhode Island’s state Retirement Board ruled unanimously that Deputy Sheriff Patricia Patterson didn’t qualify for an accidental disability pension based on an injury she had sustained three years earlier.

Yet when the case was later reviewed by a Workers’ Compensation Court judge, he decided Patterson wasn’t ready to go back to work in a courtroom.

Stuck in limbo, Patterson has collected more than $563,000 tax-free since she first filed an injury claim in 2006. A Target 12 review of court records as well as interviews with state officials and Patterson’s attorney show her case has now gone untouched for more than eight years.

And she’s not alone.

In September, the state denied Target 12’s request for the names of sheriffs who were on injured-on-duty status, or IOD, collecting their full pay untaxed. Records showed 23 of 179 sheriffs were out at the time on IOD, a far higher rate than in other law-enforcement agencies. (Officials say 18 are on IOD now.)

The R.I. Department of Public Safety denied Target 12’s appeal to release the names, but the Department of Administration — which manages worker injury claims — ultimately relented, releasing the identities of 16 sheriffs whose cases are, or had been, in Workers’ Compensation Court.

The revelation provides a window into a system that has perpetuated a critical staffing shortage in Rhode Island courtrooms, which Superior Court Presiding Justice Alice Gibney has warned is delaying hearings and risking an unsafe environment.

Longest-running case

In November 2006, Patterson said she was assaulted by a handcuffed inmate who kneed her in the groin and struck her head, according to court records. Over the next five years her case was in and out of Workers’ Compensation Court, with multiple doctors weighing in on her diagnosis.

Her attorney, Michael St. Pierre, said over the course of that period every doctor who reviewed Patterson’s case eventually agreed she no longer suffered from any physical injuries due to the incident, but they disagreed over whether she has anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result.

One doctor wrote that while Patterson appeared to have some PTSD symptoms immediately after the incident, “none of that is evident at this moment.”

Another wrote, “in my opinion, she is able to work.”

However, a different doctor agreed her physical injuries had healed but declined to “comment on psychiatric issues.”

A fourth doctor wrote that Patterson “clearly is fearful of returning to work and has some symptoms of posttraumatic stress.”

In 2009, Patterson filed an application for an accidental-disability pension, which offers retirees a maximum benefit of two-thirds of salary tax-free. (IOD status provides full pay tax-free.) That sparked another round of filings in Workers’ Compensation Court, which fizzled out by 2011.

As it stands today, Patterson remains an employee of the R.I. Division of Sheriffs even though she has not stepped foot in a courtroom wearing a uniform since her injury more than 12 years ago.

“These cases are frustrating not only for the state and but also the individual,” St. Pierre said. “These people want to go back to work.”

State official calls timeline ‘unacceptable’

Another case revealed by the state involves Deputy Sheriff Daniel Cook, who went out on IOD after an injury in 2009.

Cook applied for an accidental-disability pension three years later, but the Retirement Board voted to award him only 50% of his salary tax-free rather than the two-thirds maximum. Cook appealed the decision, but the board upheld its determination last September.

Cook officially retired in January, accepting the 50% pension nearly a decade after he first went on injury pay. By then he had collected more than $529,000 in untaxed salary alone, according to payroll records provided by the Department of Administration.

“That’s unacceptable, for that type of a timeline,” Michael DiBiase, director of the Department of Administration and a member of the Retirement Board, told Target 12.

Another long-running case involves Deputy Sheriff Robert Manzolillo, whose injury was sustained on May 5, 2010. Evan England, a spokesperson for General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, said records indicate Manzolillo has asked for a pension application twice, but never returned them.

Still out on IOD, Manzolillo has tallied more than $622,000 in pay so far.

“One of the things the Retirement Board is in the process of doing is tightening up their regulations and their timetables so that not only are the disability cases proceeding more quickly, but it’s requiring the applicant to actually prosecute their case in a timely way,” DiBiase said.

The state has made effors to reform the system before.

In 2011 lawmakers passed a measure requiring that anyone who has been out injured for 18 months — or who has reached what doctors determine to be his or her “maximum medical improvement” — apply for an accidental-disability pension. The change did not apply to workers who went out before 2011.

“One of the other loopholes here was, we require them to apply for the disability pension, but then they weren’t necessarily required to pursue the case very rapidly through the system,” DiBiase said. “The Retirement Board has tightened up some of their rules so that applicant will have to prosecute their cases or they will be denied.”

Even if an injured worker’s application is denied, however, there is nothing to prevent a Workers’ Compensation judge from coming to a different conclusion, letting the employee continue to collect IOD benefits indefinitely.

“There are different standards so it’s not automatic one way or the other,” DiBiase said, adding, “If they are denied a disability pension it raises questions about whether their injured-on-duty status is appropriate, and it would lead us to question the medical basis for their incapacity.”

But there are no signs of such action being taken in the state’s longest-running IOD cases. And when a sheriff is out on IOD, the state can’t hire someone else, so shifts are covered by paying overtime.

St. Pierre — who also represents Cook and Manzolillo in addition to Patterson — said he blames the Retirement Board for denying the disability pensions.

“That is where this has broken down,” St. Pierre said. “In years past when you went to the Retirement Board with these kinds of facts and these kinds of medicals, you would qualify for retirement.”

Reforms proposed (again)

Tucked inside Gov. Gina Raimondo’s most recent budget plan are proposed changes to the IOD system that her administration estimates would save taxpayers $1.7 million a year.

Among the reforms: requiring all current employees out on IOD for longer than 18 months — including those who were injured prior to 2011 — to apply for an accidental disability pension within 90 days. (The clock would be 60 days for IOD cases moving forward.)

St. Pierre said he would likely file suit on Patterson’s behalf if the state attempts to make any reforms retroactive.

“I would have to protect my client’s rights,” he said.

Another reform would require an independent doctor to certify an injury; right now, the employee’s personal physician certifies it. Lawmakers rejected a similar proposal last year.

“The law as it currently exists is open-ended and is inconsistent with the intent that this is a temporary program,” DiBiase said. “It’s a very generous incentive that’s in place and if a law isn’t working — human nature as it is — it is going to cause it to be subject to abuse.”

Beacon Mutual tapped to help

The Raimondo administration has also taken another major step to address the high cost of injury pay, one that does not require any action by lawmakers.

In October, the administration awarded a contract to Beacon Mutual Insurance to outsource the management of workers’ compensation for state employees. The state has agreed to pay the company $5.1 million over three years, with an option for renewal in 2021, according to Department of Administration spokesperson Brenna McCabe.

In the bidding document for the Beacon Mutual contract, state officials estimated workers’ comp claims cost taxpayers $28 million annually when “medical and lost time costs” are included. There are an average of 2,036 new claims each year.

DiBiase said the state was severely understaffed in handling the volume of cases in the past, and he believes they will “save significant money through this engagement of Beacon Mutual.”

“They bring more capability, they bring medical professionals, loss prevention; we were not doing enough in preventing injuries because we don’t have the resources.” he said. “They actually have the technology for claims administration that we don’t have.”

DiBiase said Beacon Mutual will also have the ability to independently investigate injury claims.

With sheriffs, he said, the state found the majority of incidents are “routine workplace injuries,” rather than contact with inmates.

St. Pierre said his clients are as frustrated as the state.

“Patricia Patterson didn’t ever imagine after the assault in 2006 she would still be collecting IOD, believe me,” he said. “It’s the way the system is set up.”

He rejects the idea that there should be a clock ticking to force his clients toward retirement, because if the state denies their pension application, “they get nothing.”

St. Pierre said his clients cannot go back to work unless they can do every task required of a sheriff. Still, he said he understands why some are unhappy about the situation.

“I’m not a fool,” he said. “I’m a taxpayer. And I see how frustrating this is for judges who don’t want to take the bench because it’s unsafe.”

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Diana Pinzon contributed to this report.

This report has been modified from the original, there are 18 sheriffs on IOD not 20.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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