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Prew v. Employee Retirement System of City of Providence

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

July 13, 2016

Patrizia Prew
v.
Employee Retirement System of the City of Providence.

         Retirement Board of the Employee Retirement System of the City of Providence.

          For Petitioner: Joseph F. Penza, Jr., Esq. John D. Meara, Esq.

          For Respondent: Kenneth B. Chiavarini, Esq.

          Present: SUTTELL, C.J., GOLDBERG, FLAHERTY, ROBINSON, and INDEGLIA, JJ.

          OPINION

          MAUREEN MCKENNA GOLDBERG Associate Justice.

         The petitioner, Patrizia Prew (Prew), filed a petition for a writ of certiorari seeking review of a decision by the City of Providence (city) Retirement Board (board) that denied her application for accidental-disability retirement. This Court granted the petition, and this case came before the Supreme Court for oral argument on March 2, 2016, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. Having carefully considered the memoranda submitted by the parties and the arguments of counsel, we are satisfied that cause has not been shown, and the appeal may be decided at this time. We quash the decision of the board.

         Facts and Travel

         On March 5, 2013, Prew, who held the rank of detective after more than fifteen years of service in the Providence Police Department, injured her right hand and wrist as she attempted to detain a juvenile following a disturbance outside his school. Thereafter, her status was "injured on duty, " and she was diagnosed with post-traumatic carpal tunnel syndrome. Her physician recommended surgery, but, due to a fear of surgical complications, Prew opted against surgery and elected treatment with nonsurgical measures.

         In August 2013, Prew underwent a series of tests to determine whether her injury interfered with her ability to handle a firearm. It did. The Providence Police Department concluded that Prew no longer could operate a firearm safely and took possession of her service weapon. Later that month, on August 23, Prew applied to the board for accidental-disability retirement.

         In accordance with the applicable ordinance, Prew was evaluated by three independent medical examiners (IMEs) who were retained by the board. In letters mailed from the city's human resources department, they were asked to determine whether Prew had a disability and if so, whether the disability was "caused by an accident while on the performance of * * * her duty." The letters further requested that, should the IMEs deem Prew to have a work-related disability, the IMEs submit "a statement as to whether [Prew] can perform the duties of * * * her job. If not, a statement as to what work [Prew] can perform." The IMEs also were asked for "[a] statement concerning prognosis, the necessity of further treatment, and expectation of return to work."

         All three IMEs diagnosed Prew with right carpal tunnel syndrome, which each found to be causally related to her on-the-job injury. The records reflect that, during their examinations, each IME informed Prew about the benefits of surgical release of the carpal tunnel, but Prew declined this course of treatment. Michael P. Bradley, M.D., concluded that, although he could not "guarantee" improvement, surgery is the best course of treatment and, without it, Prew is "rendered * * * completely disabled" and unable to work. Philip J. Reilly, M.D., reported to the city that Prew will be unable to perform her duties as a detective "so long as she elects to proceed on a conservative path and avoid surgery." Manuel F. DaSilva, M.D., determined that Prew "is currently partially disabled, unable to perform her full[-]duty job requirements."[1] He further opined that:

"It is well proven that carpal tunnel release done by a certified hand surgeon has a 90% to 95% success rate with improvement even if not complete improvement of the symptoms. This means that the vast majority of people are able to go back to their occupation. * * * I find it very difficult for me to agree that [Prew] is unable to do her job due to the fact that she has one of the most treatable ailments that we see in the hand."

         On July 23, 2014, the board voted to deny Prew's application for accidental-disability retirement. In its written decision, issued on August 14, 2014, the board stated:

"The evidence provided does not establish that Prew is incapacitated for the performance of her job duties if she elects not to have surgery to release the carpal tunnel of her right wrist. Prew, who would otherwise be found permanently disabled, failed without justifiable cause to follow the treatment prescribed by her treating physician.
"* * * The record * * * indicates that Prew's condition is easily correctable with a surgical release of the carpal tunnel and, by virtue of her 'failure' to follow prescribed treatment, she cannot be found disabled. As a result, the [b]oard denies Prew's [a]pplication due to her failure to follow prescribed medical treatment and her failure to mitigate an injury resulting in a permanent disability."

         Prew filed a petition for a writ of certiorari on October 6, 2014, which was ...


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