The short answer is no. You are not required to have a lawyer to file for disability benefits. In fact, if you call or write the Public Employee Retirement Association (PERA) or Minnesota State Retirement System (MSRS), they will send you the forms to complete and file your disability application. Unfortunately, your application will be scrutinized and your benefits will be awarded or denied on the same basis as if you had an attorney.
The more important question is SHOULD you have a lawyer?
If you are a police officer, firefighter or paramedic collectively defined as a “Peace Officer” under PERA you may qualify for Regular Disability or Duty Disability benefits. The criteria to qualify for the two disability benefits are set forth in Minn. Stat. §353.656, Subd. 1, Minn. Stat. §353.01, Subd. 41, and Minn. Stat. §353.031. Procuring a Duty Disability benefit can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars more than a Regular Disability benefit over a relatively short period of time. Having an experienced PERA attorney navigate these statutes will prevent costly errors.
A firefighter, police officer, or paramedic who does not qualify for PERA Duty Disability may be eligible for Regular Disability benefits. Regular Disability benefits are payable at a base rate of 45% of the office or firefighter’s average high five salary for five years or through age 55, whichever is longer. These benefits are taxable and do not entitle you to receive continued health care coverage. Like Duty Disability benefits, if you have more than 15 years of PERA qualified service you must apply for Regular Disability benefits before age 55.
A firefighter or police officer may also be eligible for PERA Duty Disability if his or her injury results in a disability that is expected to prevent that individual from performing his or her normal duties for a period of at least one year, and that the disability is the direct result of an injury sustained during the performance of duties that are 1) specific to protecting safety or property, and that 2) present inherent dangers specific to police officers or firefighters.
Every application is reviewed under the same strict process. Failure to submit a complete application, submitting an application for the wrong type of benefit or failure to file in a timely fashion can affect whether or not you’re approved for benefits.
On several occasions, the lawyers at Meuser Law Office, P.A. have been contacted by individuals who have applied for benefits on their own and been denied. While we have been able to successfully procure benefits for a number of clients who were initially denied, there are a number of individuals that we were unable to accept their representation and appeal their denial because it was too late or they had damaged their claim for benefits so much that we could not recommend trying to salvage their application.
For example, PERA requires that a member file two doctor forms in support of their application for either Regular Disability or Duty Disability benefits. These forms appear to be straight forward and simple. In reality, they are anything but. The questions can be confusing to treating physicians who often complete these forms in a hurry, sometimes without thoroughly reviewing your chart. PERA is very particular in assessing and evaluating claims. If one question is answered incorrectly by your doctor, often times due to the doctor not understanding the question, your application will be denied. Even something as simple as sending in a copy of the form as opposed to the original with an original signature from your doctor will result in a denial. A brief review of the application reveals that there is no requirement as to what additional medical support is necessary for a successful application. However, of the attorneys at Meuser Law Office, P.A. believe that attaching the appropriate medical support for your application is crucial to a successful award of benefits.
Let me provide an example of how valuable it can be to police officers and firefighters to apply for PERA Duty Disability benefits properly. Assume that you are a “Peace Officer” (police, fire or paramedic), age 45 with 22 years of experience. You have a high five of $60,000 annually, $5,000 monthly. You are in a 20% tax bracket. If this individual is awarded Regular Disability benefits, he would be entitled to 45% of his high five until he reaches age 55 at which time, the disability benefit is converted to retirement benefits. The Regular Disability benefit is taxable. You would receive $2,250 per month ($5,000 x 45%) less $450 per month in taxes ($2,250 x .20) for a net of $1,800 per month.
If you receive Duty Disability under the same scenario, you would be entitled to 60% of your high five plus an additional 3% for each year beyond 20 years for a total of 66%. This benefit is not taxable and you will be entitled to receive same until age 55 at which time, the Duty Disability benefit is converted to retirement. You would receive $3,300 per month ($5,000 x .66). Over a period of 10 years the difference in the net amount that you would recover would be $1,500 per month, $18,000 per year and a whopping $180,000 over the ten year period!
In addition, if you qualify for Duty Disability, you may qualify for the Continuation of Health Insurance Coverage under Minn. Stat. 299A.465 which would entitle you to continue on the employer sponsored health plan as if you were still a member of the department. If you had family coverage at the time of your disability, you would be able to continue at the same rate as you would if you were still a member of the department through age 65. Assuming, conservatively, that your employer’s share of family coverage is $750 per month, you would receive health care benefits equal to $9,000 per year ($750 x 12 months) through age 65, or in our scenario, $180,000 ($9,000 x 20 years) . That assumes health care costs do not go up at all over the next 20 years.
Combining monthly benefit and healthcare costs, the difference between Regular and Duty Disability benefits would exceed $360,000.
The application process and the law are simply too complex and the stakes too high to apply for Duty Disability benefits on your own.