John R. Grasso
Gina M. Raimondo et al. John R. Grasso
Employees' Retirement System of Rhode Island.
County (PC 13-3121) (PC 14-4953) Superior Court, Netti C.
Vogel Associate Justice.
Plaintiff: Joseph F. Penza, Jr., Esq.
Defendants: Michael P. Robinson, Esq.
Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and
William P. Robinson, III Associate Justice.
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. 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.
reasons set forth in this opinion, we vacate the judgment of
the Superior Court.
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.
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." Subsequent to
that meeting, on June 27, 2013, Mr. Grasso proceeded to file
his declaratory judgment action in PC 13-3121.
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
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.
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."
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.
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).
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
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
"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 ...