PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Both the city of Providence and retired firefighter John Sauro have decisions to make following last week’s Rhode Island Supreme Court decision effectively stripping Sauro of his accidental disability pension.
The state’s high court ruled the Providence Retirement Board had the legal right to halt Sauro’s $3,900 monthly tax-free benefit payments after a doctor determined he was no longer disabled due to a work-related injury. But the same doctor also found Sauro was unable to return to work due to other ailments not related to the job.
In 2011, Sauro was seen in Target 12 undercover video vigorously lifting weights and taking part in a regular workout routine despite a shoulder injury he said he received while working as a Providence firefighter. The report caused an outcry, and the City Council quickly passed an ordinance requiring annual medical reviews of individuals with accidental disability pensions.
The Retirement Board eventually halted Sauro’s benefits after he came up for his medical review. The former firefighter sued to reverse the decision in 2014, but the city ultimately prevailed before the high court.
In the wake of the ruling, Sauro has to decide if he will seek a regular service pension when he turns 55 in March; apply for an ordinary disability pension due to the other ailments; or ask to be returned to work, Assistant City Solicitor Ken Chiavarini told the retirement board at a meeting Wednesday.
“We have spoken to Mr. Sauro’s attorney and they are exploring their options,” Chiavarini said. “One being Mr. Sauro receiving an ordinary disability consistent with the court’s decision.”
Sauro, 54, would have to apply for the ordinary disability pension, which, generally speaking, can provide up to 45% of pensions benefits but is taxed, unlike his prior tax-free accidental disability benefit, which provides two-thirds of a worker’s pay when he or she left the job. Doctors would have to determine that his other ailments make him completely and totally unable to return to work, and the board would then vote on the matter.
Chiavarini told the board that city pension officials are calculating what Sauro’s benefits would be under an ordinary disability and will provide those numbers to Sauro’s attorney. The board voted to continue the matter until their March meeting.
Retirement Board Chairman Lawrence Mancini – who is also the city’s finance director – lauded the city solicitor’s office for its work on this case.
“On behalf of the public and taxpayers I think it was the right decision the board made and I’m happy the Supreme Court affirmed that decision,” Mancini said.
During the meeting, board member James Lombardi asked if the city was considering recovering payments made to Sauro since 2015, when a Superior Court judge ordered the city to continue to pay Sauro despite the doctor’s diagnosis. Chiavarini estimated that those payments totaled about $132,000.
“The board will engage the solicitor’s office to do everything practical and legally possible to protect the taxpayer’s interest and to recover what’s available to recover,” Mancini said.
All told, the city has paid Sauro $632,136 since his disability pension took effect in 2000.