Court of Appeals Addresses Claims by Police Officers and Firefighters Against Municipalities
Feb 27, 2017
On November 21, 2016 the Court of Appeals issued a decision in Matter of Diegelman v. City of Buffalo addressing whether the petitioner, a retired police officer, was entitled to bring an action against the municipality under General Municipal Law § 205-e. The Court’s decision addressed whether the petitioner was entitled to pursue such a claim, seeking compensation for pain and suffering despite the fact that he was entitled to receive benefits under GML § 207-c for a line-of-duty injury. The Court held that entitlement to wages and medical expenses pursuant to GML § 207-c was not a bar to a claim pursuant to GML § 205-e, in spite of the fact that there is overlap between the compensation afforded by those two statutes.
The petitioner, a retired police officer, was diagnosed with mesothelioma in August 2012, allegedly as the result of exposure to asbestos in properties owned by the City of Buffalo and Board of Education while a police officer. Petitioner moved for leave to serve a late Notice of Claim. In opposition, the City of Buffalo argued that the motion should be denied because GML § 207-c, which obligates certain municipal entities to pay wages and medical costs to officers injured in the line-of-duty constituted the petitioner’s exclusive remedy. The Supreme Court granted the petitioner’s motion but was reversed by the Appellate Division.
The Court of Appeals held that where the municipality elected not to provide Workers’ Compensation benefits, a police officer who suffered a line-of-duty injury caused by the municipality’s violation of an applicable statute or regulation could pursue a claim seeking compensation for pain and suffering and special damages under GML § 205-e. The issue centered on the interplay between GML § 205-e, GML § 207-c, and the Workers’ Compensation Law. According to the Court, GML § 205-e expressly prohibits a municipal employee who is entitled to benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Law from suing the municipality, but no such prohibition exists for a municipal employee who receives benefits under GML § 207-c.
Further, while acknowledging that there is some overlap between the benefits afforded by the Workers’ Compensation Law and those afforded under GML § 207-c, the Court noted that the “benefits are neither equivalent nor ‘mutually exclusive’” and the two compensation schemes “are independent of each other.” The Court also noted that a police officer could become eligible for benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Law but not under GML § 207-c, and that eligibility for benefits under each statutory scheme is determined by a separate and distinct body.
Finally, the Court determined that prohibiting a municipal employee who receives benefits under § 207-c from pursuing a claim under § 205-e would be inconsistent with the statutory text of GML § 205-e and the Court’s prior decisions regarding the intent of GML § 205-e. The Court noted that it has characterized the amendments to GML § 205-e as instructive that this provision should be applied “‘expansively’ so as to favor recovery by police officers whenever possible.” The Court also referenced an objection to certain amendments to GML § 205-e from the New York State Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officers and the Mayors of New York City and Rochester that recognized those amendments would permit police officers to receive benefits under GML § 207-c while also pursuing a tort action against the municipality. That this objection was not incorporated into the final draft bill by the legislature compelled the Court to find that an officer could collect benefits under section 207-c and still bring a 205-e cause of action.
The lone dissenter, Judge Pigott, who left the Court at the end of 2016, stressed that the legislative history of GML § 205-e does not indicate any intent to provide a municipal employee who receives benefits under GML § 207-c a right of action under GML § 205-e. Judge Pigott also argued that the expansive benefits provided by GML § 207-c compelled the conclusion that no right of action under GML § 205-e was intended for a municipal employee who received such benefits.
Diegelman is a cautionary tale for all municipalities but particularly for those that do not provide Workers’ Compensation benefits for their police officers and firefighters. The Court makes clear in Diegelman that an injured police officer or firefighter who is not entitled to benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Law can receive benefits under GML § 207-c and also pursue a tort claim against the municipality under GML § 205-e. The Court’s decision also reaffirms its prior decisions that, where an injured police officer or firefighter is entitled to Workers’ Compensation benefits, he would still be entitled to benefits under GML § 207-c based on the Court’s finding that such benefits, while somewhat similar, are in fact distinct. In such situations, however, the municipality will not have to defend against a suit brought under GML § 205-e. Thus, a municipality is faced with choosing whether to pay for Workers’ Compensation benefits for its injured police officers and firefighters or face the threat of lawsuits brought under GML § 205-e.