Engagement * Bargaining * Advocacy * Justice * Empowerment * Support
by Brenda Ortega
MEA Voice Editor
MEA member Carolyn Matzinger had no idea the union could help her make a case for disability retirement benefits after a progressive illness made it dangerous for her to return to her Petoskey classroom.
For two years she had received some long-term disability insurance benefits, which were running out, and her application for permanent disability retirement had been denied by the state Office of Retirement Services (ORS).
Then an impromptu chat with her local union president in the aisles of Home Depot led her to call MEA’s area field office for assistance. Little did she know the process would take another three years, involve multiple appeals, and eventually lead to an Ingham County Circuit Court ruling.
For school employees who become disabled before reaching retirement age, two types of early retirement exist: duty and non-duty disability. To win in either case, an applicant must prove he or she is totally and permanently disabled.
Whether the disability occurred on the job or is unrelated to the workplace is the major difference between the two, according to Karen Schneider, an attorney with the White Schneider firm who represented Matzinger in her disability case on behalf of MEA.
Matzinger applied for non-duty disability for her Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) because the illness impairs her immune system, making her susceptible to debilitating respiratory illnesses that would further weaken her immune system and cause her leukemia to advance.
The ORS sends cases for review to an Independent Medical Advisor (IMA). When Matzinger’s first application was denied by the IMA, Schneider requested an administrative hearing and submitted further medical and scientific evidence to show why she could not return to teaching.
The case was sent for another review, but it went back to the same IMA—who made the same decision again without addressing additional information submitted, Schneider said.
She protested the violation of procedural due process, and the case went for a third review. Remarkably it was sent to the same doctor a third time, who rejected it a third time, and the only alternative was an appeal to Ingham County Circuit Court, Schneider said.
The judge ruled the retirement system’s procedures were constitutionally inadequate and appeals should be reviewed by an unbiased and impartial decision maker. As a result, Matzinger’s case was reviewed by a doctor with expertise in blood cancers who reversed the earlier decisions, and she soon began receiving benefits retroactive to the start of her application.
Most individuals don’t have the wherewithal to fight big systems of government alone—especially faced with health struggles at the same time, Schneider said. “Most people would throw up their hands and say, ‘I give up.’
“But for MEA going to bat for these individuals, I don’t know what they would do financially. Time is not on their side, but fortunately MEA is.”
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