MN PERA Police and Fire Plan Disability Benefits: Five Mistakes to Avoid
If you are a Minnesota police officer or firefighter, and if you have a disability that is expected to prevent you from performing your normal duties as a police officer or firefighter for a period of at least a year, and if your disability “is the direct result of an injury incurred during, or a disease arising out of, the performance of normal duties or the actual performance of less frequent duties, either of which are specific to protecting the property and personal safety of others and that present inherent dangers that are specific to the positions covered by the public employees police and fire plan," Minn. Stat. §353.01, Subd. 45 (2009), you may be eligible for PERA duty disability benefits. PERA duty disability benefits start at a minimum of 60% of your average salary over your five highest-paid consecutive years of service. This is the equivalent to a retirement benefit based on 20 years of service. If you have in excess of 20 years of service, you will receive an additional 3% of your salary for every year beyond 20 years of service. PERA regular disability benefits start at 45% of your salary, or the equivalent of 15 years of service. Police and Fire Plan members who have an illness or injury expected to prevent them from performing the normal duties of their position for a period of a year, but the injury or illness was not-work related, or does otherwise meet the definition of “Duty disability," may be eligible for Regular Disability Benefits. In addition PERA Police and Fire Plan members may also be eligible for continuation of health care coverage under Minn. Stat. §299A.465, if they also qualify for duty disability benefits. That means the Employer must continue to pay your health insurance premiums until age 65. These benefits can be worth thousands and thousands of dollars! Unfortunately, we see a lot of folks make mistakes when they’re applying for these benefits, and then they have to retain us to appeal an adverse decision. Most often, people applying for PERA benefits get denied, or don’t get awarded the benefit they’re applying for because they made mistakes on the initial application. It’s easier (and cheaper) to get it right the first time you apply, than it is to appeal and try to fix some easily avoided mistakes you made on your initial application.
- Schedule a time to meet with a PERA or MSRS retirement counselor before you start completing your application. They will explain the various types of disability benefits that are available to you, and explain the application process. Many times, they are also kind enough to point out potential issues they might spot with your claim.
- You are generally required to submit reports from two doctors indicating that you are disabled from performing the duties of a firefighter or police officer for a period of at least a year. Bring a copy of your job duties to your appointment, and explain to your doctor exactly what they need to fill out. If your doctors don’t indicate on the forms that you can’t perform the duties of a police officer or firefighter for a period of at least one year, you will not be considered to be disabled. This seems self-explanatory, but submitting forms that indicate you're not disabled will not help you get approved.
- The PERA disability application form gives space for about one paragraph to explain how your injuries occurred, and another paragraph to summarize your medical treatment. Don’t be afraid to attach additional pages to explain precisely how your injury occurred, and the medical treatment you’ve received. The PERA application form doesn’t really indicate the statutory requirements to qualify for duty disability, i.e., that your injuries or illness was incurred while performing duties that are specific to protecting property or safety, and that present inherent dangers specific to police officers or firefighters. If you don't do an adequate job of explaining how your injury fits into this definition, you may be denied duty disability benefits.
- If your injury occurred more than 2 years before your disability began, special rules apply, or at least that’s how PERA is interpreting the law. For example, if you had a back injury, tried conservative therapy, underwent surgery, then tried to return to full duty, only to realize a couple years later that it just isn’t going to work, you will need to show that your disability prevents you from performing your duties in the 90 days prior to your application. PERA has interpreted this to mean that if your injury was over 2 years prior to your application, and you pushed papers on light duty in the 90 days before you apply, you must show that your disability prevents you from doing those light duty assignments. In many cases, you may be better off waiting until 90 days after your light duty ends to apply for PERA benefits. This is a very case specific situation, and you may wish to seek case-specific advise on the timing of your application.
- If your claim is denied by PERA, or if you get awarded regular disability benefits when you think you qualify for duty disability benefits, don’t blow the appeal deadline! Depending on the basis for the denial, if you do not appeal PERA's decision, you may be barred from applying again based on the same injury or condition. If you do appeal, you will have adequate time to put together the materials you need to dispute the determination. And don’t wait until the day your appeal is due to consult with an attorney! Don’t assume that PERA’s right if you are denied.