Disabled Massachusetts Officer-Turned-Legislator Must Pay For Retraining Before Reinstatement

Jose Santiago was first appointed to the Methuen, Massachusetts Police Department in 1982 and later was promoted to sergeant, where he worked until 1997, when he was injured. He was elected to the office of State Representative in 1998, reelected in 2000, and received a leave of absence from his position as a Methuen police sergeant.

In January 2003, after having failed to be again reelected as State Representative, Santiago sought to withdraw his leave of absence and be reinstated, requesting a return to light duty. The Police Chief responded that because Santiago had an interruption of service of more than five years, he was required by a state statute to complete a retraining program at a police academy at his own expense and without pay.

Santiago refused to attend the academy retraining program under these conditions, insisting he had a right to immediate reinstatement with pay and without having to incur the expense of the retraining program. The Police Chief eventually withdrew the Department’s academy sponsorship and the mayor of the Town terminated Santiago’s employment on June 27, 2004.

Santiago sued, contending that he was not obligated to undergo retraining, at least not at his own expense. The Massachusetts Court of Appeals disagreed, and rejected the lawsuit.

Santiago argued that he remained a vested police sergeant while on leave as a State Representative and, as such, he could not suffer any loss of rights under the civil service laws. He contended that this included the right to be paid during retraining and have the retraining paid for. The Court disagreed, finding that Santiago “has not lost any rights that any other police officer would not have lost if he had a five-year break in service, whether that break was necessitated by a leave, retirement, or disability.”

Santiago also argued that even if he was subject to retraining, the Department should bear the expense of the retraining. The Court found to the contrary that “a municipality will pay for the training expenses and salary of an officer in only two situations: (1) New appointees to a full-time position in a police department, and (2) in-service or supervisory training. Neither of those situations applies to Santiago. There is no statutory provision concerning the expense of the retraining requirement for an officer who has been on a leave of absence for more than five years.

“It is a valid concern that a municipality will have to shoulder the financial burden of an officer’s wages and the cost of retraining. The municipality should not be required to duplicate the expense that it had borne once before when that officer was newly appointed, for no reason other than his voluntary choice to take a leave of absence for reasons not related to the police service from which he sought to become inactive. Moreover, the municipality may also be exposed to greater liability for benefits to the applicant due to injury during retraining. Required retraining ensures that former retirees are fully prepared to perform the duties imposed by their positions, reducing the risk of re-injury and liability to third parties.”

Santiago v. Methuen Police Dept., 931 N.E.2d 515 (Mass. App. 2010).

This article appears in the February 2011 issue