Patrizia Prew, who held the rank of detective after more than 15 years of service in the Providence Police Department, injured her right hand and wrist as she attempted to detain a juvenile following a disturbance outside his school. Thereafter, her status was “injured on duty,” and her doctor diagnosed her with post-traumatic carpal tunnel syndrome. Her physician recommended surgery, but, due to a fear of surgical complications, Prew opted against surgery and elected treatment with nonsurgical measures.
In August 2013, Prew underwent a series of tests to determine whether her injury interfered with her ability to handle a firearm. It did. The Department concluded that Prew no longer could operate a firearm safely and took possession of her service weapon. Later that month, on August 23, Prew applied to the City’s retirement board for accidental-disability retirement.
The retirement board denied Prew’s request for benefits on the grounds that Prew chose not to have surgery. Prew challenged the decision through an appeal to the Rhode Island Supreme Court.
The Court overturned the denial of benefits. After a comprehensive review of the City’s retirement ordinances, the Court stated: “We also do not perceive a mitigation requirement when considering the ordinances in their entirety. The drafters of the ordinances did not impose a mitigation requirement.
“Despite the absence of an express mitigation requirement, the City argues that such a requirement must be read into the ordinance in order to protect the integrity of the retirement system. The City contends that an employee who, like Prew, refuses to undergo surgery might take advantage of the retirement system by obtaining benefits and then at some point in the future obtaining corrective surgery, rendering her capable of performing the essential functions of the job while collecting accidental disability retirement.
“However, the City’s ordinances strike a balance between the drafters’ aim to maintain fiscal stability through protection of the retirement system and the desire to compensate employees who have incurred permanent disabilities as a result of their service with the City. It provides that all retired employees who receive a disability pension must submit a physician’s certification of their disability on a yearly basis. Additionally, the City may require disabled retirees to undergo an annual medical examination. Refusal to submit to that examination will result in the discontinuation of pension benefits, and, if the retired employee continues to refuse the medical examination, a complete revocation of the pension may result. Consequently, these provisions safeguard the retirement system from the form of abuse the City claims could arise by granting accidental disability retirement to a physically incapacitated employee whose only prospect for recovery includes a surgical procedure to which the employee refuses to submit.”
Prew v. Employee Retirement System, 2016 WL 3743354 (R.I. 2016).