He won in court and he won before the Police Pension Fund Board of Trustees. But James J. Seiferheld’s attorney thinks more litigation will be necessary before his client gets either his disability pension restored or a new city job.
The pension board voted last week to reject a request by the Bloomberg administration to revoke Mr. Seiferheld’s pension, said his attorney, Robert Ungaro. The vote was split 6-6, with the six police-union officials on one side and the six mayoral appointees on the other. The tie means he keeps his pension, Mr. Ungaro said, but he expressed doubt that the city would honor the rulings in the politically charged case.
Neck and Shoulder Pain
Mr. Seiferheld retired from the NYPD in 2004, after 12 years of service, once doctors agreed with his claim that a fall on the ice while on duty had caused him constant pain in his neck and shoulder and a loss of range of motion that prevented him from performing the duties of a Police Officer. Police Department doctors later concluded that Mr. Seiferheld was doing construction work using motions that indicated his neck and shoulder were not disabled, such as hammering siding above his head.
In 2007, the pension board voted to invoke the “safeguards” provision, under which a disability retiree who shows recovery can be returned to city service if he or she had less than 20 years on the job. But city doctors found cocaine present in Mr. Seiferheld’s hair sample, disqualifying him from employment by the Police Department. The city Department of Law then unilaterally suspended his pension payments of $52,365 a year, but the Bloomberg administration did not offer him employment in a less-sensitive position, Mr. Ungaro said, although he could have been given a job outside the Police Department.
Mr. Seiferheld sued, and in April the state Court of Appeals ruled that the city should not have stopped the pension payments without approval of the pension-fund Board of Trustees, as required by the law.
Case ‘Very Troubling’
The court was not enthusiastic. ‘Though petitioner is entitled to prevail here, the case as a whole is very troubling,” the majority opinion said. “It seems from the record that petitioner either has received or is in a position to claim accident disability benefits for the last seven years, and counting. Yet any reader of this record must have serious doubt that he was ever really disabled. Whether any of the benefits paid to him may be recouped is a subject on which we express no opinion. But we do express the hope that the Pension Fund’s Board of Trustees will generally act to protect the Fund and the public with more efficiency than it has displayed in this case.”
The case was also seized on by critics of public-employee pension rights, including the city tabloids. Mr. Seiferheld “is the latest poster boy for why New York’s grossly expensive and grossly dysfunctional government pension system desperately needs an overhaul,” the Daily News editorialized. The New York Post, back in 2007, called him a “Shirk Jerk.”
“Pension laws that permit this result must be changed,” Finance Commissioner David Frankel, one of Mayor Bloomberg’s representatives on the pension board, said after last week’s vote. “The result is absurd. Taxpayers cannot afford to pay a disability pension for a perfectly healthy former officer who failed a drug test.”
Mr. Ungaro said that any illegal drug use Mr. Seiferheld engaged in occurred while he was retired, a private citizen not subject to NYPD regulations. He said the union representatives on the pension board were reluctant to endorse a unilateral action years after it occurred.