MA Court to Decide if Worker Heart Attack Warrants Disability Benefits

October 10, 2008 ( - Massachusetts' highest court will decide whether a former city worker qualifies for a full disability retirement because she suffered a heart attack after being told her job was being eliminated.

The Salem News reports that the Supreme Judicial Court is tentatively set to hear arguments November 3 in the case involving Claire Cole, a former secretary in the public services department, to decide whether Cole’s heart attack was sustained “as a result of and while in the performance of her duties,” and whether the city is protected from having to pay benefits because it was simply conducting a legitimate personnel action.

In March 2000, then-City of Salem Mayor Stan Usovicz decided that Cole’s position would be eliminated from the city budget in the coming fiscal year. Cole’s supervisor told her about the pending budget cut and recommended she start looking for a new job.

Cole was visibly upset when she left work that day, and a half-hour later, she suffered a heart attack and never returned to her job, according to The Salem News. She applied for a disability pension, which would have paid her 72% of her salary, instead of the much lower percentage she would have received for retiring at 60.

The Salem Retirement Board initially went along with the request, but the state retirement system twice rejected the claim, leading the local board to reconsider. Cole died in 2003.

Her attorney pointed to a state medical panel of heart specialists who looked at Cole’s medical records and concluded that the heart attack could have been triggered by the stress of bad news. Cole had also argued that she was under stress because of a strained relationship with a co-worker in the office.

However, city officials and lawyers countered that Cole had suffered health problems for years and had used an unusually high number of sick days – 327 over the course of her 25 years with the city. They contend that the heart attack had nothing to do with her job, and that the city should not be held liable for simply delivering bad news about a budget decision.

A state appeals board sided with Cole, and the city appealed in Superior Court, where a Lawrence Superior Court judge ruled last year that Cole was entitled to the full pension, putting her in the same category as a police officer or firefighter injured in the line of duty.