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Settlement ends pay dispute for hurt firefighter

(ran Beach edition)

The $69,500 payment ends a prickly two-year dispute with a firefighter who was refused light duty after an injury.

The City Commission on Tuesday endorsed a $69,500 settlement with a former firefighter who severely injured his neck on the job, then was terminated last year when he was not physically able to return to his post.

The city's insurer, the Florida League of Cities' municipal insurance pool, will pay the settlement, said City Manager Carl Schwing. He added that attorneys for the league worked out the deal's essentials earlier this year.

The money adds to previous workers' compensation payments and future disability pension stipends already allotted for Alan McDonald _ and ends a prickly two-year labor dispute.

But McDonald's attorney said the settlement was bittersweet news.

"I don't think anyone is ever completely satisfied in a worker's comp case," said attorney Julian Piper of St. Petersburg. "He's lost his career and has a disability that's going to be with him forever. It's an unfortunate situation, but one that has finally been resolved with the agreement of everyone involved."

McDonald didn't want to comment about his case, Piper said.

McDonald, a 40-year-old former firefighter-paramedic, was injured after 10 years on the job in April 1997. While lifting a patient, he felt a pull and pop in his neck. Doctors later diagnosed a cervical disc herniation that required surgery and continued treatment for pain, records state.

As a result of his injuries, a doctor banned him from lifting heavy objects and prescribed light duty at work. But when McDonald requested a desk job, fire Chief Fred Golliner said, no such positions were available. McDonald complained that he was not being treated fairly, because other people in similar situations had been given light duty.

A few months later, city officials were made aware of other events that could have jeopardized McDonald's certification as a firefighter/paramedic, Golliner said. In January 1998, McDonald was arrested and charged with two counts of obtaining prescription drugs with falsified prescriptions at a Largo grocery pharmacy.

McDonald pleaded no contest to the charges, court records state. A Pinellas Circuit Court judge ultimately withheld a formal finding of guilt in May 1998, but sentenced McDonald to pay court costs of $471 and serve 18 months of probation.

City officials, however, said the charges did not affect their decision to fire McDonald in October 1998.

"If he had been coming back to work full time in full capacity, we would have had to look at that more closely," said Schwing. "But the way the circumstances played out, it really didn't come into play."

The greater concern, Schwing said, was that McDonald was physically unable to perform his former job.

For 18 months previously, McDonald had not been at work. But for a year, he had still been receiving a full salary, city records state. Then he had received lesser disability income benefits for 27 weeks. He also was allowed to cash in accumulated vacation and sick leave to stay home.

But McDonald filed a complaint against the city with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that he had been discriminated against by the city because he was disabled, records state. According to his claim, he should have been allowed to serve in a light-duty job after his injury.

Schwing said that the $69,500 payment ends all of McDonald's claims. The settlement also reaffirms the end of his employment with St. Pete Beach and states the case cannot be reopened now that the deal has been finalized.

In addition to the settlement, and previous worker's compensation payments, McDonald also is receiving disability pension payments, Schwing said. Those payments add up to about $1,233 monthly, Schwing said. The firefighters pension board approved the benefits earlier this year.

Personnel records made available last week included only the last few years of evaluations for McDonald. All were satisfactory. Kara Schrader-Smith, St. Pete Beach personnel director, said there were no recent disciplinary actions in his file.