A police officer who was injured in the 1980s and received disability benefits – but later was physically able to rejoin the police department – is statutorily prohibited against returning to the force, the Indiana Supreme Court decided in answering a certified question.
Mark Thatcher was a City of Kokomo police officer in the 1980s. After four years of service, he hurt his knee in the line of duty and eventually received Public Employees’ Retirement Fund disability benefits pursuant to his membership in the “1977 fund.” After more than 20 years of receiving the disability pension, surgery allowed Thatcher’s knee to be repaired and he asked for reinstatement to active duty.
Initially, the local pension board voted to reinstate Thatcher, but the Board of Works notified PERF that no suitable work was available for Thatcher. He then filed a federal suit claiming discrimination on the basis of age and disability. Thatcher was 49 at the time he asked for reinstatement.
When the city finally received money to hire more officers, it believed it was statutorily prevented from reinstating Thatcher based on Indiana Code 36-8-4-7(a): “A person may not be appointed as a member of the police department or fire department after the person has reached thirty-six (36) years of age. A person may be reappointed as a member of the department only if the person is a former member or a retired member not yet receiving retirement benefits of the 1925, 1937, 1953, or 1977 fund and can complete twenty (20) years of service before reaching sixty (60) years of age.”
The federal court sent the justices the certified questions: “1) Does Indiana Code section 36-8-4-7(a) apply to a member of the 1977 Fund who is receiving disability benefits and who has been determined to have been recovered pursuant to 35 Indiana Administrative Code section 2-5-5(c)? 2) If yes, does Indiana Code section 36-8-8-12(e) apply to determination of eligibility under Indiana Code section 36-8-4-7(a), such that time spent receiving disability benefits counts toward 'years of service' as that term is used in Indiana Code section 36-8-4-7(a)?”
The justices determined that I.C. 36-8-4-7(a) applies to a member of the 1977 fund who is receiving disability benefits and who has been determined to have been recovered pursuant to 35 Indiana Administrative Code 2-5-5(c). They also held that the time period during which a person receives disability benefits under Indiana Code 36-8-8-12(e) doesn’t count toward “years of service” as that term is used in I.C. 36-8-4-7(a).
“We commend Thatcher for his commitment to police service and for his efforts to return to active duty on the KPD. And we sympathize with his frustrations at not being able to return to serve his community in this capacity. Indeed the City initially believed it could offer Thatcher a position when one became available. The City later realized, and correctly so, that there was a statutory prohibition against allowing Thatcher’s return to the Department,” wrote Justice Robert Rucker in Mark J. Thatcher v. City of Kokomo, et al., No. 94S00-1109-CQ-570.