ST. PETERSBURG — In the wake of criticism over how the city treated an injured firefighter, city attorneys went behind closed doors to tell council members the city didn't shun a longtime employee.
City Attorney John Wolfe and his deputies briefed the council and Mayor Bill Foster on Thursday about firefighter Bradley Westphal, who suffered a catastrophic back injury on a routine call in 2009.
Wolfe disputed newspaper stories, saying the city did "not abandon" an employee suffering great pain. The meeting was not open to the public, but Wolfe released documents late Thursday and Friday detailing what he told the council.
A state appeals court recently sided with Westphal, a 29-year veteran, in a battle about disability benefits. The court declared part of Florida's workers' compensation insurance system unconstitutional as a result.
Westphal, 52, contends the city abandoned him for nine months after his disability benefits expired, even though he could not work.
To survive financially, Westphal withdrew from the city's deferred retirement program — which he estimates cost him more than $200,000 — to draw his pension early.
Wolfe's five-page memo says Westphal received $67,594 in benefits during the nine months.
He stressed that the city could not simply extend benefits to injured workers without violating state laws. He characterized it as a "misuse of public funds."
At the time of his injury, Westphal earned $58,641 a year. He now earns $90,358 with disability, pension and health benefits. When combined with projected Social Security benefits, Westphal could receive $114,454 a year. Some of the money could be tax free, the memo states.
Westphal disagreed with the memo.
He acknowledge receiving the money, but said it came months later after mediation and court battles.
"I was cut off," he said Friday. "They stopped paying me. I was forced off the job."
The injury led to three surgeries, a left leg that is partly paralyzed, a brace, a cane and constant pain. As a result of the case, the 1st District Court of Appeal struck down a law that placed a two-year limit on temporary disability benefits.
The opinion came from a three-judge panel. The city has requested a hearing before the entire court. If the ruling stands, Westphal could receive another $20,000 to $24,000, the memo states.
The case, Westphal said, isn't about money.
The city lost in court, Westphal added. He stressed his life has been altered forever. He can no longer run, bowl, golf or play softball.
"No matter what I do I'm in constant pain," he said. "I can't lay like a vegetable for the rest of my life, I'd be dead in two years."
Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.