Law firm, some police lobbying hard against bill to rein in disability costs

Lawmakers, concerened with ballooning costs, hear emotional stories of injuries on the job

By: - March 21, 2023 9:36 am

A wave of police duty disability retirements followed the killing of George Floyd. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

First responders and a key law firm that frequently represents them have mounted a furious lobbying campaign to beat back an effort by some state lawmakers to curb the growing costs of state disability benefits.

Lawmakers are debating a bill that would require cops and firefighters to receive up to 32 weeks of treatment with a mental health professional — who would assess if the first responder could go back to work — before applying for state disability retirement due to a psychological condition.

The bill was amended to reduce pension benefits for first responders who get new jobs in another field, after fewer than 20 years of service, who are disabled from either psychological or physical injuries.

During a legislative hearing on the bill Monday, former police officers told stories about getting assaulted, breaking their backs in crashes and suffering neurological damage while doing their jobs.

Adam Hamberg said he was injured after a car chase led to a foot chase, and he had back surgery that wasn’t a total success. He now works a civilian job for the Albert Lea Department of Public Safety training cops for “significantly less money.” He said a “windfall provision” in the bill would penalize him.

“I never asked for this to happen to me. Matter of fact, I didn’t even know what a duty disability was prior to being injured. I hear a lot of people wanting to get out of the job right now — I’m the complete opposite. It kills me to have to get out of the job.”

The bill (HF1234) aims to stem the tide of police officers retiring early due to post-traumatic stress disorder, contributing to a police staffing shortage and ballooning costs for the state’s police and fire retirement system. 

The number of Minnesota police officers retiring early due to PTSD shot up after the 2020 police murder of George Floyd. Retired officers get at least 60% of their average salary, tax-free, in pension payments. 

Since a March 9 hearing on the bill, an Eden Prairie law firm has rallied police officers to oppose the legislation. They inundated lawmakers with letters and showed up in force for the Monday hearing on the bill by the Legislative Commission on Pensions and Retirement, which comprises both House and Senate members.

Attorney Ronald Meuser Jr. has said his law firm represents hundreds of Minneapolis cops and firefighters who filed workers’ compensation claims and retired early after Floyd’s murder. 

As of June, 144 MPD officers had gotten workers’ compensation settlements — most negotiated by Meuser’s firm — and Minneapolis had paid more than $22.2 million in workers’ comp settlements to police officers, according to a Reformer analysis.

Meuser, Yackley & Rowland Law Office has said it represents three-fourths of Minnesota first responders who apply for disability pensions. On social media, the firm encouraged “current and former clients” to write letters to lawmakers and testify at the Monday hearing. 

The firm claimed police and firefighters would lose their disability benefits if they got jobs in new professions.

“Our local heroes deserve better!” one post said.

Another said the bill would force retirees to reapply for disability benefits annually, “putting their disability benefits (and health insurance) at risk.” That sparked numerous calls to state pension officials from worried workers and retirees, but the reapplication process isn’t changing. The bill just puts the Public Employee Retirement Association’s current practice into law. 

Committee chair Rep. Kaohly Vang Her, DFL-St. Paul, told the hearing room filled with first responders that interest groups and lawmakers have been working on the issue for nearly three years, and “nobody got what they wanted,” she said. The bill has been revised 15 times so far.

If lawmakers don’t do something, active workers will have to pay for the increase in costs, she said.

The bill was amended to end the practice of reducing pension benefits by the amount of any workers’ compensation settlement the worker gets. Instead, pension payments would be reduced for people who get jobs in different fields after retiring early.

Doug Anderson, executive director of the Public Employee Retirement Association, known as PERA, said someone who starts work at age 25 and goes on disability at age 30 currently gets a benefit equivalent to what they’d get after 20 years of service. The proposal would reduce their pension benefit. Workers who paid into the fund for at least 20 years would have no reduction in their benefit, he said. 

Those who get new jobs in other fields would see their benefit reduced by no more than half of their earnings, Anderson said.

Anderson said reapplying annually is much less onerous than the initial application, and only requires one medical report. There’s no need to hire an attorney, and the process usually takes just a week, he said. Last year, over 1,000 people reapplied, and PERA didn’t deny a single person.

All the early retirements have put a strain on the state police and fire retirement fund, increasing its liability by $73 million last year. Anderson said if the PTSD exodus continues, the cost of the police and firefighters’ plan could increase by $40 million annually — or about 4% of payroll — requiring members and employers pay more into it. The fund is already underfunded by about $1.7 billion due to poor investment returns last year.

Retirees don’t need to worry about their benefits, but the number of disability retirements has had a “really significant impact,” Anderson said. If the trend doesn’t reverse, active members will have to increase their contribution by 1.6% of their salary.

The bill has been supported by the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association and other law enforcement groups. On Monday, the Minnesota Correctional Officer Association opposed the bill, however, saying it would overturn four decades of administrative case law on duty disability pensions.

Charles Gollop retired from Bloomington law enforcement 10 years ago after a police motorcycle crash left him with a traumatic brain injury, 13 broken bones, a broken back, and punctured lung. He went back to work and then retired after breaking his shoulder.

He learned about the bill on Wednesday, when he heard about an emergency meeting Sunday night, and 200 people showed up with just two hours’ notice.  

Gollop said the bill is a betrayal of emergency responders everywhere. 

“This is not fair,” he said. “This is an injustice.”

Former Apple Valley Police Officer Dan Schyma said he went through the “agonizing process” of medically retiring, and doesn’t think people should be penalized for finding new work.

Samantha Steward is both an attorney at Meuser’s law firm and the wife of a former Minneapolis police officer who retired due to a disability. She tearfully testified against pension reductions for people who get new jobs, codifying the reapplication language, and a health care amendment that was later withdrawn.

She said the bill would create an incentive for people to become idle. “This bill is being touted as helping first responders but one part of the bill gives life and the other takes it away,” Steward said.

Angie Strobel worked as a Hennepin County sheriff’s deputy for 20 years, and said law enforcement is “still in the dark ages” when it comes to talking about mental health. Weakness is forbidden in law enforcement culture, and it’s not safe to admit you’re struggling with mental health to your partner or administration, she said.

“These partners depend on us for our lives. They depend on us for backup. If you say you’re struggling with mental health, and you might overreact or underreact — freeze — do you think that partner wants to respond to a call with you?” she said.

Strobel said she didn’t want to leave the profession, and took time off and sought treatment, even though that information could be used against her “both criminally and civilly” if she is involved in a major incident or police shooting. 

“We’re going to be put out as trash — we already have,” Strobel said.

Christopher Tuma left MPD due to a disability, and said going through the disability pension process “almost broke me.” He felt abandoned by the department and state and local politicians, and nearly committed suicide before leaving. Having to reapply for disability status every year makes it difficult to move forward, he said, and can send him into a tailspin.

“PTSD never goes away,” Tuma said. “Treatment can relieve the symptoms but the trauma is always there.”

Lawmakers also heard from Wendy Wulff, whose husband, Dan, is the former head of a Minneapolis bomb squad and was injured during a 2005 training accident. He hasn’t been able to work since he suffered a brain injury. 

They learned in 2007 that their disability pension offsets workers compensation, and all they’d get is his pension, which was “financially devastating.” After pushing for years for a fix, the bill would help them, but hurt others.

The committee chair, Her, said she was sympathetic to people’s plights, and recounted how her aunt waited for her uncle, who worked in law enforcement, to come home every night before going to bed.

“This is not a topic I take lightly,” she said.

But some of the information disseminated was misleading, she said, and impugned the motives of lawmakers. The disability pension is “the most generous plan in the state” — and better than veterans’ or federal disability pensions, she said.

At one point, when people in the room began disputing Her, acting chair Rep. Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, threatened to clear the room.

“I can’t make everyone happy with this bill,” Her said, but promised to keep working on it.

Her said she heard from many officers who said their health insurance benefits were negotiated away as part of workers’ compensation settlements, which she deemed “completely unacceptable.” 

(If an officer retires early due to disability, their employer must continue to provide their health insurance until they reach age 65. Workers sometimes agree to take a lump sum settlement instead.) 

Her said some officers were charged tens of thousands of dollars by law firms to complete a duty disability application, and were told they’d be charged a $7,000 reapplication fee under the bill. 

She said she was considering an amendment requiring that law firms disclose to potential clients that the process doesn’t require an attorney. (PERA employees will help people for free.) She said she would withdraw the amendment, but keep it on the table for future consideration as talks continue.

The committee recommended that the bill pass with amendments. 

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.