Utica fire chief’s lawsuit dismissed

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A lawsuit filed by suspended Utica Fire Chief Russell Brooks against the City of Utica over sick leave benefits has been dismissed by a state Supreme Court judge because the lawsuit was “premature,” according to the judge.

Brooks claimed in his lawsuit that the city rejected an application he and his attorney made in September in regards to General Municipal Law 92-d concerning line of duty sick leave benefits related to Brooks’ work in New York City following the 9/11 terrorist attack.

Supreme Court Justice Patrick F. MacRae heard arguments from both sides in November, but rather than make a decision based on the merits of Brooks’ claim, the judge instead said the lawsuit itself was not based on the facts as the judge saw them.

The lawsuit “is premature and must be dismissed,” MacRae wrote in his Dec. 15 decision. “The Court does not address the merits of the claims presented by the parties at this time, as they are not ripe for consideration.”

The basis for Brooks’ lawsuit is that he was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia after serving several days in New York City helping with recovery efforts after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack. Brooks’ condition was then certified for monitoring and treatment under the World Trade Center Health Program.

In January 2017, Brooks filed a General Municipal Law 207-a claim with the City of Utica asking the city to acknowledge his medical condition. The city denied this request in May 2017 and placed Brooks on medical leave, with full salary and health benefits. The dispute over the 207-a claim was headed towards arbitration, according to the judge’s decision.

Then in September, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law General Municipal Law 92-d, which entitles responders with a 9/11-connected medical condition to sick leave benefits.

On Sept. 18, Brook’s attorney, Earl T. Redding, sent an email to city attorneys claiming that Brooks was entitled to the line of duty sick leave that Cuomo’s new law proposed, and if the city agreed, Brooks would withdraw his original 207-a application, according to the judge’s decision. The city did not grant this new request and Brooks filed a lawsuit to get the 92-d sick leave benefits.

After hearing arguments from both sides, Justice MacRae ruled that Redding’s email regarding the 92-d benefits was not an official application for those benefits, but was instead an attempt to settle the 207-a case.

“The inevitable conclusion that must be drawn is that the September 18, 2017 email was intended as a effort to resolve the pending GML 207-a claim,” MacRae wrote in his decision. “It was not intended specifically as an application for GML 92-d benefits.”

MacRae dismissed the lawsuit based on this decision, and stated that the arbitration on the 207-a matter should proceed as originally planned.

“The City is pleased with today’s ruling. While it’s never popular to deny anyone’s disability claim, the City has an obligation to follow the law, even when it’s not politically convenient,” Utica city officials said in a prepared statement.

“The City’s decision was based solely on the facts and medical evidence after a thorough review of Chief Brooks’ medical file by an independent doctor and toxicologist.”

Brooks’ attorney, Redding, said “there are possibilities” going forward for how Brooks can respond.

Redding said he disagreed with the judge’s interpretation of his email and said city attorneys, likewise, argued their case as if the email was a legitimate application for benefits.

“The city has never denied that it denied the 92-d benefits,” Redding said this morning. He said Brooks could file a motion to have the judge reconsider his decision, or Brooks could file a more official application for 92-d benefits.

“We’re addressing it and we’ll see what happens,” Redding said. “Hopefully we can get a decision on the merits someday.”

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