In the wake of the World Trade Center disaster, the City of New York amended its administrative code to create what is known as the “WTC presumption.” Under the Code, there is a presumption that “any condition or impairment of health caused by a qualifying WTC condition shall be presumptive evidence that it was incurred in the performance and discharge of duty and the natural and proximate result of an accident unless the contrary be proved by competent evidence.” Qualifying WTC conditions include, among other things, diseases of the respiratory tract, diseases of the gastroesophageal tract, and psychological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and/or depression.
Under a separate Code provisions, NYPD and FDNY members who suffered from disabilities that result from on-the-job “accidents” are entitled to an enhanced disability benefit. Although the WTC presumption does not mandate enhanced accidental disability retirement benefits for first responders in all cases, it is nonetheless incumbent on the City to come forward initially with affirmative credible evidence to disprove that the officer’s disability was causally related to his work at the WTC site.
Demetrius Samadjopoulos was a police officer who responded to the attacks on the WTC. He later developed reactive airway disease and asthma as well as depression and anxiety. When the City denied his claim for accidental disability benefits, the matter wound up in New York’s Appellate Division.
The Court ordered that Samadjopoulos receive accidental disability benefits. The Court found that the City had “utterly failed to rebut the presumption that Samadjopoulos’s qualifying conditions were not caused by hazards encountered at the WTC site. The City does not even purport to offer an alternative cause for Samadjopoulos’s debilitating conditions. Indeed, the record contains no proof whatsoever that Samadjopoulos’s disabling conditions were attributable to any other cause.
“No fewer than four doctors from the WTC Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program (MMTP) found – and not one doctor disputed – that Samadjopoulos suffers from reactive airway disease and/or asthma as well as reflux, and another MMTP doctor, as well as the City’s own doctor, found that Samadjopoulos also suffers from depression and anxiety. The fact that Samadjopoulos’s spirometer incentive tests and chest X rays – taken in a physician’s office and not a work environment which aggravates his symptoms – were normal does not negate the causal connection between his work at the WTC site and his injuries. MMTP physicians explained that normal results on these tests in an office environment are not only consistent with Samadjopoulos’s diagnosis, but expected. While medical boards may resolve conflicting evidence, they may not simply ignore medical evidence, particularly here, where the Medical Board must rebut a statutory presumption.
“Samadjopoulos’s respiratory and psychological conditions did not exist prior to his work at the WTC site. The City does not – and cannot – dispute this. The causal connection between his physical and psychological conditions is buttressed by the reports of not only MMTP doctors but also by the City’s own doctors.”
Samadjopoulos v. New York City Employee’s Retirement System, 961 N.Y.S.2d 410 (A.D. 2013).