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Grasso v. Raimondo

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

February 12, 2018

John R. Grasso
Gina M. Raimondo et al. John R. Grasso
Employees' Retirement System of Rhode Island.

         Providence County (PC 13-3121) (PC 14-4953) Superior Court, Netti C. Vogel Associate Justice.

          For Plaintiff: Joseph F. Penza, Jr., Esq.

          For Defendants: Michael P. Robinson, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.


          William P. Robinson, III Associate Justice.

         These consolidated cases come before the Supreme Court on an appeal and on a petition for the issuance of a writ of certiorari to review a November 5, 2015 bench decision in Providence County Superior Court in favor of the plaintiff, John R. Grasso.[1] The defendants, Gina Raimondo, Frank Karpinski, the Employees' Retirement System of Rhode Island (the ERSRI), and the State of Rhode Island, contend before this Court that the trial justice erred in determining that Mr. Grasso need not comply with G.L. 1956 §§ 45-21-23 and 45-21-24 in order to continue receiving his accidental disability pension because those sections were not applicable to his situation.

         For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we vacate the judgment of the Superior Court.


         Facts and Travel

         The facts in the instant case are relatively limited and are not in dispute. We rely on the complaints filed in PC 13-3121 and PC 14-4953 for our recitation of the pertinent facts.

         Mr. Grasso was a member of the Cranston police force when, on June 18, 2000, he suffered a debilitating injury while performing his duties as a police officer. When he was unable to return to work as a police officer, he applied for an accidental disability pension pursuant to the terms of G.L. 1956 chapter 21.2 of title 45. On September 12, 2002, Mr. Grasso was granted an accidental disability pension. Over ten years later, on September 20, 2012, Mr. Grasso received a letter from the Retirement Board of the ERSRI advising him that his pension "had been overpaid." The letter stated that, for that reason, his pension would be suspended on September 30, 2012. According to Mr. Grasso's complaint in PC 13-3121, the September 20, 2012 letter requested that he provide copies of his tax returns for the years 2003 to 2009 as well as "medical progress notes" from his treating physician from 2003 through 2011. The letter further informed him that he might be required to undergo an independent medical examination (IME) pursuant to § 45-21-23(a). After providing what the complaint in PC 13-3121 refers to as "certain medical documentation" to the Retirement Board, Mr. Grasso was notified that he was to contact a particular doctor to schedule an IME. On May 9, 2013, Mr. Grasso's counsel met with the Retirement Board's counsel to detail Mr. Grasso's belief that his pension was not governed by § 45-21-23, which states that the Retirement Board may require a disability annuitant to undergo an IME at least once a year, and § 45-21-24, which provides that the Retirement Board shall adjust the amount of a disability annuitant's pension based upon the beneficiary being engaged in a "gainful occupation."[2] Subsequent to that meeting, on June 27, 2013, Mr. Grasso proceeded to file his declaratory judgment action in PC 13-3121.[3]

         Also subsequent to that May 9, 2013 meeting, on May 28, 2013, the Executive Director of the ERSRI rendered an administrative decision wherein he rejected Mr. Grasso's contention that the ERSRI was not entitled to require him to undergo an IME or to adjust the amount of his pension based on his gainful employment as an attorney. Consequently, Mr. Grasso requested a hearing before the Retirement Board of the ERSRI. The Retirement Board appointed a hearing officer to hear Mr. Grasso's matter. On September 12, 2013, a hearing was conducted before the hearing officer; and, on August 1, 2014, the hearing officer issued a decision rejecting Mr. Grasso's arguments. On September 25, 2014, the Retirement Board rendered its decision upholding the hearing officer's determination in the case. Subsequently, on October 8, 2014, Mr. Grasso appealed the ERSRI's decision to affirm the hearing officer to the Superior Court in PC 14-4953.

         On December 1, 2014, the Superior Court consolidated the two cases-PC 13-3121 and PC 14-4953. Thereafter, on June 22, 2015, Mr. Grasso moved for summary judgment in the declaratory judgment action (PC 13-3121) and, on August 28, 2015, a corresponding cross-motion for summary judgment was filed. Subsequently, on November 5, 2015, the trial justice rendered a bench decision in Mr. Grasso's favor in the consolidated cases. The defendants subsequently filed a notice of appeal in PC 13-3121 and a petition for the issuance of a writ of certiorari in PC 14-4953, which petition this Court granted.


         Issues Presented

         Before this Court, defendants contend that the trial justice erred in denying their motion to dismiss PC 13-3121. They further posit that the trial justice misinterpreted the effect that a 1980 amendment to G.L. 1956 § 45-21.2-10 had on Mr. Grasso's accidental disability pension in reaching her decision in the case. Additionally, defendants aver the following: (1) that the trial justice did not give proper deference to the ERSRI's interpretation of the relevant statutes; (2) that the ERSRI is entitled to administer the pension authorized by chapter 21.2 of title 45 in the same manner as it administers pensions pursuant to chapter 21 of title 45, including applying §§ 45-21-23 and 45-21-24; (3) that the trial justice reached an absurd result; (4) that the trial justice incorrectly found § 45-21.2-10 to be unambiguous; and (5) that the General Assembly should not "be presumed to have granted a special pension benefit solely to one class of retirees in violation of statute."


         Standard of Review

         Due to the fact that these consolidated cases come before this Court in different procedural postures, we will detail the standard of review applicable to each action.

         In PC 13-3121, the trial justice granted Mr. Grasso's motion for summary judgment and issued a declaratory judgment. This Court reviews a trial justice's decision to grant summary judgment in a de novo manner. High Steel Structures, Inc. v. Cardi Corporation, 152 A.3d 429, 433 (R.I. 2017); see also Daniels v. Fluette, 64 A.3d 302, 304 (R.I. 2013). This Court "will affirm a [trial] court's decision only if, after reviewing the admissible evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, we conclude that no genuine issue of material fact exists and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." High Steel Structures, Inc., 152 A.3d at 433 (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Great American E & S Insurance Co. v. End Zone Pub & Grill of Narragansett, Inc., 45 A.3d 571, 574 (R.I. 2012).

         With respect to the decision of a trial justice to grant or deny declaratory relief, our standard of review is deferential. Bruce Brayman Builders, Inc. v. Lamphere, 109 A.3d 395, 397 (R.I. 2015). However, "a trial justice's discretion to grant or deny declaratory relief is not absolute and is subject to appropriate appellate review." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Rhode Island Republican Party v. Daluz, 961 A.2d 287, 293 (R.I. 2008). Factual findings made by the trial justice "are afforded great weight by this Court, and will not be disturbed absent a showing that the trial justice overlooked or misconceived material evidence or was otherwise clearly wrong." Plainfield Pike Development, LLC v. Victor Anthony Properties, Inc., 160 A.3d 995, 1002 (R.I. 2017) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, "[a] trial justice's findings on questions of law * * * are reviewed de novo." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Town Houses at Bonnet Shores Condominium Association v. Langlois, 45 A.3d 577, 581 (R.I. 2012).

         The second case before this Court-PC 14-4953-was an administrative appeal. The standard of review to be applied in such cases is detailed in G.L. 1956 § 42-35-15(g) as follows:

"The court shall not substitute its judgment for that of the agency as to the weight of the evidence on questions of fact. The court may affirm the decision of the agency or remand the case for further proceedings, or it may reverse or modify the decision if substantial rights of the appellant have been prejudiced because the administrative findings, inferences, conclusions, or decisions are:
(1) In violation of constitutional or statutory provisions;
(2) In excess of the statutory authority of the agency;
(3) Made upon unlawful procedure;
(4) Affected by other error or law;
(5) Clearly erroneous in view of the reliable, probative, and substantial evidence on the whole record; or
(6) Arbitrary or capricious or characterized by abuse of discretion or clearly unwarranted exercise ...

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