Injured worker brings pension denial to court

August 25, 1993|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Staff Writer

Baltimore County fired Debra Reynolds because a hand injury made it impossible for her to work.

Then the county denied the 32-year-old emergency medical technician a disability pension on the grounds that she can work.

That may seem like a "Catch-22." But, according to the tortured logic of law and bureaucracy, it makes perfect sense. That's because one part of the bureaucracy dealt with the firing,while the other handled the pension.

Next month, Mrs. Reynolds takes her fight to Circuit Court. A hearing on her pension denial is scheduled for Sept. 30.

County Fire Chief Elwood H. Banister, whose department fired Mrs. Reynolds, refused to comment on the case. James A. Helfman, an assistant county attorney, said his job in the matter is only to defend the county's denial of the pension.

The facts of what caused the injury are not in dispute, only the effect.

Mrs. Reynolds' predicament started in May 1988, when she and a partner drove their county ambulance to the White Marsh police station to pick up a sick prisoner. While they were placing the prisoner in the back of the ambulance, the clamp that holds the stretcher came loose. When Mrs. Reynolds reached out to keep the patient from rolling into a side wall, the metal gurney hit the back of her right hand, squeezing it into her leg. She shrugged off the pain until the next day, when she sought medical treatment.

She has since had two operations and months of therapy. On a good day, she says, she can lift a gallon of milk. At other times, she cannot use her hand, which often cramps.

Money problems are ever present. Help from Harford County social services has ended. So have the 75 weekly payments of $128 from workers' compensation.

Mrs. Reynolds and her husband, who is disabled and cannot work because of injuries suffered in two auto accidents, say they are in danger of losing their Joppatowne home. They don't know how they'll make September's mortgage payment. They've survived by slowly selling their possessions, borrowing from relatives and refinancing their house to stave off foreclosure, using some of the equity to make payments during the past year.

No health insurance

Although the county still pays medical bills for treatment of her hand, Mrs. Reynolds said she no longer has county health insurance for her family. Her husband, Brian, 34, said a $6,000 settlement he received recently for one of his auto accidents is gone, spent on overdue bills.

The disability pension would provide about 67 percent of her old $446 weekly salary, tax-free, meaning that she would get the equivalent of her old take-home pay should she win, said her lawyer Damon A. Trazzi.

The couple have three children, including a 2-year-old and a 3-year-old born during the protracted struggle over Mrs. Reynolds' job. Mr. Reynolds also has two older children who live with his ex-wife.

"You really get on edge," said Mrs. Reynolds, holding her 3-year-old daughter in her lap. "Every month the gas and electric gets turned off; the phone, everything you take for granted just isn't there."

For someone who trained to help others, the past few years have been tough. "She really gets frazzled," Mr. Reynolds said.

Hand operations

Mrs. Reynolds was first operated on in February 1989 for carpal tunnel syndrome, a debilitating wrist condition that can result from repetitive motions, such as typing on a computer. She was off work until May 1989, when she returned to perform light duty. She resumed her full duties in March 1990. While retraining, she reinjured her hand and never returned to full duty again.

An Aug. 7, 1990, letter signed by county Medical Services Director Dr. Barbara McLean says, "I do not feel that Mrs. Reynolds has the strength needed to continue working as a paramedic."

The doctor recommended lighter duties, but the Fire Department said no light duty was available for her. She was fired in December 1991,

less than one month after the county retirement board denied her a disability pension.

After a second hand surgery in February 1992, Mrs. Reynolds appealed the retirement board's ruling to the county board of appeals, which upheld it March 5, 1993.

The board of appeals' decision cited the opinions of Dr. McLean, Dr. Steven L. Friedman and Dr. Peter C. Innis, three county government physicians who examined Mrs. Reynolds over a four-year period.

Despite her earlier opinion, Dr. McLean later agreed that there was "no anatomic or physiologic explanation" for Mrs. Reynolds' weakness. Dr. McLean also said the complaints of pain and weakness were "subjective."

The appeals board therefore agreed with the retirement board decision that the disability was not justified.

Mr. Trazzi argued, "It is simply fundamentally unfair . . . to allow the county to discharge Mrs. Reynolds . . . due to permanent physical disability and at the same time refuse her a disability retirement on the specific ground that she is not incapacitated."

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