Dispute over assault pay for injured Mass. county CO lands in court

The sheriff is appealing a 2020 ruling granting the officer nearly $174,000 in damages

By Julie Manganis
The Salem News
MIDDLETON, Mass. — On the morning of Jan. 2, 2018, a man in custody at the Middleton Jail was told he was being moved.

Upset by the news, the man lashed out, holding a knife to the throat of a cellmate.

Jeffrey Howell was on duty as a captain in another building when he got a call asking him to help another officer move a footlocker of equipment down a flight of stairs so it could be brought over to the building where the hostage incident was playing out.

As he started down the stairs, holding one end of the footlocker, Howell rolled his ankle. By the time he got to the bottom of the steps, he realized that he'd injured his shoulder.

More than four years later, a state Appeals Court panel heard arguments last week in Sheriff Kevin Coppinger's challenge to a lower court's finding that Howell was entitled to be compensated under the state's "assault pay" law.

"Interesting case," said Appeals Court Judge Peter Rubin during the 30-minute hearing on Wednesday.

After helping the other officer carry the footlocker, filled with magnetic panels that are used to cover the windows in a cell door during a disturbance, down the stairs, Howell went back to the control room in the unit where he was working.

He realized later how badly his shoulder had been injured, his attorney said in court filings. He would later undergo surgery for the issue.

Howell received workers compensation, which covered 60% of his pay. The balance of his regular salary came from his unused sick time.

His attorney, Jamie Goodwin, argues that instead of forcing Howell to "burn out" his sick time, Coppinger should have made up the difference between workers compensation and Howell's regular pay with assault pay.

The assault pay law was enacted so that correctional officers injured due to violence by a prisoner wouldn't be penalized by having to tap into sick time — which in many cases can be converted into a payment when a worker retires or resigns.

But Coppinger and the department's lawyer, Steve Pfaff, say in court filings they don't believe Howell qualified because he was nowhere near the violence that day.

In 2020, Salem Superior Court Judge James Lang disagreed, finding that but for the brief hostage situation in the other building, Howell wouldn't have sustained the injury.

Lang also awarded triple damages, a provision of the law. With interest and costs, the judgment came to nearly $174,000.

The sheriff appealed.

Through his spokeswoman, Coppinger declined to comment, citing a policy against discussing pending litigation.

"This case is not about running after an inmate who is escaping or two inmates fighting," Pfaff, the lawyer representing the sheriff's department, suggested to the Appeals Court on Wednesday.

Even if a court found that the injury was related to the incident, however, Pfaff argued that the amount of damages should be offset by the sick pay Howell received.

But Goodwin argued that's not fair, since it wasn't Howell's fault the department refused to offer assault pay.

The sheriff, Goodwin told the court, "nakedly violated the law" by forcing Howell to use his sick time.

Goodwin said his client's full sick time credit should be restored to him and he should also be paid the assault pay, without any offset.

A line of prior court decisions, including one from 2007 in which a correctional officer in another county tripped and fell on stairs while responding to a disturbance, were among the precedents cited by Lang in awarding damages to Howell last year.

The Appeals Court is now being asked to interpret how remote an officer's involvement in a violent episode would have to be in order to deny assault pay.

Howell eventually lost his job after a year on workers compensation. Pfaff told the Appeals Court that it was due to his inability to provide information on when he would return to work.

"This is a much more complicated case than I thought," Rubin told the lawyers.

Goodwin disagreed, telling the judges, "This isn't a complicated case."

The court can take several months to issue a ruling.

(c)2022 The Salem News (Beverly, Mass.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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