Trooper’s Disability Benefits Do Not Stop With Criminal Conviction

Douglas Merino joined the Washington State Patrol (WSP) in 1978 and served as a trooper until October 11, 1988, when he suffered a herniated disc and injuries to his left neck and left shoulder after being ejected from a patrol vehicle while on duty. As a result of these injuries, Merino was unable to meet the physical requirements for his WSP trooper position and went without pay from 1989 through 1991. On February 10, 1994, then-Chief Roger Bruett placed Merino on full job-related disability status, for which he received monthly payments equal to one-half of his previous active-status monthly salary. Sometime thereafter, Merino found employment as an investigator with the Department of Labor and Industries.

On November 1, 1999, more than five years after becoming disabled, Merino received a certified letter that the WSP sent to all troopers on disability status at that time. This letter (1) confirmed that Merino was an “employee on inactive status due to a disability,” (2) informed him that he must continue to comply with WSP regulations and policies, (3) required him to sign and to return the letter, and (4) threatened potential loss of his disability payments if he did not do so. Merino promptly signed and returned the letter.

In 2005 and 2006, while still on WSP disability status, Merino became involved in an insurance fraud scheme: He attempted to defraud Farmers Insurance of $60,000 and lied to insurance investigators questioning this claim. On January 28, 2008, a jury convicted Merino of two felony counts of fraud based on this false insurance claim. Several months later, WSP discharged Merino and terminated his disability payments.

Though Merino did not directly challenge the termination decision, he sued WSP, arguing that it had wrongfully terminated his disability payments because he remained disabled from injuries in the line of duty. When a trial court dismissed the lawsuit, the dispute wound up in the Washington Court of Appeals.

The Appeals Court ordered the reinstatement of Merino’s disability benefits. The Court concluded that “the Legislature’s purpose for these disability payments is to provide income to a WSP officer who can no longer perform line duty by virtue of injuries suffered while protecting the public. Merino was injured while engaged in line duty as a WSP officer and, as a result, was placed on disability status.

“Once an officer is assigned disability status, he or she retains only the title ‘officer’ and the right to be considered to a return to active service; the officer no longer has the law enforcement power of a state trooper on active status. Because the disability prevents the officer from earning a regular income working full-time for the WSP, the monthly half-wage disability payments help offset the officer’s diminished earning capacity and partially compensates the officer for his or her sacrifices in the line of duty.

“In striking contrast with the Legislature’s explicitly narrow disqualification of disability benefits if the trooper receives injuries while engaged in a tort or a crime, the statute contains no analogous language requiring a disabled recipient to continue WSP employment in order to receive such disability benefits. On the contrary, the plain language of the law shows that the legislature drafted this statute to compensate WSP officers for injuries sustained in the line of duty (to compensate them partially for employment-generated wages that these disabilities have taken from them, not to compensate them for continued employment); thus, the Legislature conditioned this statutory disability benefit only on the officer’s becoming injured in the line of duty.

“WSP asserts that Merino’s reading of the statute would compel it to employ a convicted felon as a WSP officer. This assertion is incorrect: The statute did not prohibit WSP’s terminating Merino’s WSP employment when he was convicted of a felony. Because Merino’s employment contract included service-connected disability rights, those rights vested at the instant he was injured in the course of his employment.”

Merino v. State of Washington, 2014 WL 941949 (Wash. App. 2014).