Friday, September 30, 2011

Court of Appeal: Police Chief Qualified for Disability Retirement Despite Termination Because of Equitable Exception

In  Zimmon v. City of San Bernardino (Cal. Ct. App., Sept. 16, 2011, E050314) 2011 WL 4337123, the Court granted former San Bernardino Police Chief Garrett Zimmon disability retirement by applying an equitable exception stating that an employee terminated prior to the approval of his disability retirement is still eligible for benefits if the employee's application would have been granted but for the termination.

In the summer of 2002, Zimmon was diagnosed with a heart condition.  Later, the city’s mayor openly considered terminating Zimmon so her successor could select a new chief.  Zimmon then filed an application for disability retirement and was terminated the following day.  A hearing officer ruled Zimmon had suffered a heart-related injury.  However, the officer denied Zimmon’s petition for disability retirement.  After an internal appeal, the city ruled Zimmon had “proved his disability and incapacity for performance” but he was not eligible for benefits because his termination took place before his right to a disability retirement matured.  The superior court affirmed this decision, and the case was appealed to the Fourth District Court of Appeal.

The Appellate Court reversed, holding Zimmon’s application for disability retirement would have been approved had he not been terminated. The Court relied on an equitable exception which states “an employee who has been terminated, prior to the pension board approving his disability retirement application, may still be ‘eligible to retire for disability’ if there is evidence that the employee's application would have been granted.” (Id.) The Court further found Zimmon had already “proved his disability and incapacity for performance of duty ‘on the basis of competent medical opinion.” (Id.)

The Court in Zimmon relied heavily on two Court of Appeal cases brought by firefighters denied disability retirement. These cases helped define what it means to be eligible to retire for disability when an employee is terminated. In Haywood v American River Fire Protection Dist., a firefighter filed an application for disability retirement benefits based on stress caused by the discipline process.  (Haywood v American River Fire Protection Dist. (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 1292.)  The Court of Appeal rejected his claims finding eligibility to retire for disability “meant that the person was an active employee, who would be able to return to his job if he overcame his disability.” (Haywood, supra, 67 Cal.App.4th at p. 1307.)

In Smith v. City of Napa, a firefighter with back injuries was dismissed for failing certification tests and filed for disability retirement the same day. (Smith v. City of Napa (2004) 120 Cal.App.4th 194.) The Court of Appeal rejected his claims but noted equitable principles could provide grounds to find that an employee’s disability rights mature and survive a dismissal for cause if the medical evidence supporting those rights is definitive. (Smith, supra, 120 Cal.App.4th at pp. 206–207.)

These two cases laid the groundwork for a case such as Zimmon, in which the employee would clearly have received disability retirement but for his termination from employment.