By Glenn Blain Daily News Albany Bureau
The state’s highest court gave a huge victory to ailing 9/11 first responders Thursday, making it easier for them to collect more generous pensions.
The Court of Appeals ruled unanimously in a trio of cases that pension officials had to award more lucrative disability pensions to police officers who got cancer after working at Ground Zero.
City officials had denied the higher pensions to two cancer-stricken cops and the widow of a third, saying the officers’ ailments weren’t related to their Ground Zero work.
“The broader implications of this decision are huge,” said attorney Chet Lukaszewski, who represents cancer-stricken city cop Eddie Maldonado.
“It means that the retirement systems and pension funds can’t simply say we disagree with a 9/11 applicant,” Lukaszewski said. “They have to put forward some type of evidence.”
Lukaszewski and other lawyers said the court’s ruling in favor of Maldonado, fellow police officer Karen Bitchatchi and the widow of deceased officer Frank Macri put teeth in a 2005 state law that required pension officials to assume that the cancers and other illnesses suffered by 9/11 responders were caused by their work at Ground Zero unless they had clear proof to the contrary.
“He is smiling right now,” said Nilda Macri, 57, of her late husband Frank. “I am just really, really happy.”
Frank Macri, a six-year NYPD veteran, worked about 350 hours in the toxic fumes at Ground Zero and the Fresh Kills landfill after 9/11. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2002 and died in 2007.
Nilda Macri fought for nearly five years to obtain enhanced line-of-duty death benefits from the city.
The line-of-duty benefits are significantly better than ordinary benefits and mean Nilda Macri can collect a tax-free pension of 75% of her husband’s salary. Ordinary benefits paid half of his salary and were taxable.
Police union officials hailed the court’s decision, saying it could impact the claims of hundreds of other 9/11 first responders.
“While we are pleased by the final outcome of these cases, it is unfortunate that the city put the officers and families through years of plainly frivolous challenges up to our state’s highest court, treatment that none deserved in light of their tremendous sacrifices to this city,” said city Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch.
City officials expressed disappointment with the ruling, noting that a three-person medical board reviewed each case and determined the illnesses were not related to 9/11.
“The court didn’t conclude that the medical board’s diagnoses were incorrect,” city lawyer Paul Rephen said in a statement. “Rather, it found that… the medical board needed to provide more information.”
He added that the medical board will provide more information in the future.
City officials downplayed the fiscal impact of the decision, arguing that most 9/11 first responder claims are approved without dispute.
“In the limited number of instances where benefits have been denied, only very few have resulted in litigation,” said Inga van Eysden, chief of the city Law Department’s Pension Division. “Therefore, we expect this decision to have little impact.”