Representing the Injured or Disabled Member Part 47: Scope of Who is Eligible for Federal Benefits for “Public Safety Officers” Under PSOBA

By: Jim Cline and Erica Shelley Nelson

Representing the Injured or Disabled Member

Part 47: Scope of Who is Eligible for Federal Benefits for “Public Safety Officers” Under PSOBA

This article is the 47th in a multiple part series covering the rights your injured and disabled members have and how you, as a union or guild representative, can best assist them.  Over the past several weeks and continuing for the next several weeks, we have been and will be publishing, in various segments, information on how state and federal laws protect your members who are hurt or otherwise unable to work. We will cover topics including disability discrimination law, the FMLA, job protection rights under the CBA, workers compensation, disability benefits, and the right to bring a civil lawsuit.

The topics we are covering are also addressed in detail in a book that we published: Helping the Injured or Disabled Member: A Guidebook for the Washington Law Enforcement and Fire Union Representative.  It is also our intention over the course of the next year to travel through the state and provide training to public safety union and guild representatives on how best to enforce these rights.  Expect to hear more on that in the months ahead.

This 47th article of our Newsletter series provides a discussion concerning federal benefits available to officers or their families when there is a death or permanent disability in the line of duty, and what the “line of duty” limitation means.   For more information, visit our Premium Website. There you will find an online version of the Injured or Disabled Member’s Guidebook and other information on the laws covering your members.

The PSOBA (Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Act) defines “public safety officer” as an individual serving in a public agency (state or local) in an official capacity with or without compensation as a law enforcement officer, firefighter, or chaplain; an employee of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who is performing official duties related to a major disaster or emergency; a State, local or tribal employee who is performing official duties in cooperation with FEMA; and a member of a rescue squad or ambulance crew who is engaging in rescue activity or emergency medical services.[1]  The definition of “law enforcement officer” covers any individual involved in crime and juvenile delinquency control or reduction, or enforcement of the criminal law, including, police, corrections, probation, parole, and judicial officers.[2]

The scope of which employees are, or are not, covered has been the subject of some litigation. An EMT designated as an “associate firefighter” has been determined to fall within the scope of PSOBA’s coverage.[3]  But private fire pilots have been held to be excluded.[4] In Moore v. Department of Justice,[5] the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit similarly held that eight firefighters who were killed in an accident as they drove home from fighting a forest fire were not “public safety officers” because they were employed by a private company.

In Cassella v. United States, [6] the Federal Circuit court disallowed PSOBA coverage for a noncommissioned “school zone officer.” The officer was regulating traffic wearing a department-issued police vest. The evidence indicated that the officer had no arrest or criminal citation authority, but was responsible for safeguarding children crossing streets. The court held she was not covered because the Act only applied to “law enforcement officers” empowered to enforce criminal laws, not civil laws. 

In the next article in this series, we’ll discuss the scope of coverage under PSOBA, especially the “line of duty” limitation.

[1] 42 U.S.C. § 3796b (9).

[2] 42 U.S.C. § 3796b (4).

[3] Winuk v. United States, 2007 U.S. Claims Lexis 199, 77 Fed. Cl. 207 (2001).

[4] Groff v. U.S., 2007 U.S. App. Lexis 15821 (Fed. Cir.).

[5] 760 F.3d 1369 (2014).

[6] 469 F.3d 1376 (Fed. Cir. 2006).

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