Miami Beach

Ex-chief and cops sue Miami Beach over heart problems; city calls suit ‘a farce’

Miami Beach’s former police chief, its union president and two former police officers have filed a class-action lawsuit claiming the city engaged in a RICO Act “scheme to defraud” police officers out of worker’s compensation benefits.

Miami Beach City Attorney Jose Smith called the lawsuit “patently frivolous, offensive, scandalous and just plain wrong.”

The lawsuit, filed March 20 in Broward Circuit Court, claims that Miami Beach officials worked in concert with Johns Eastern (its worker’s compensation service agent) and doctors to deny payments to police officers who have suffered from heart disease or hypertension while on the job.

Plaintiffs named in the lawsuit are:

• Former Police Chief Carlos Noriega.

• Current Miami Beach Fraternal Order of Police President Sgt. Alejandro Bello.

• Charles Press, formerly a member of the department’s command staff and current Key Biscayne Chief of Police

• Former officer George Lerra, whose rank when he last worked with the department was not immediately available.

The men all suffered heart issues while on the job, but weren’t paid the full benefits due to them under Florida’s Heart Law, the suit claims. Since first responders work in high-stress jobs, the Heart Law provides worker’s compensation benefits to police officers and fire fighters who suffer heart disease or hypertension while on the job.

The suit further claims that the failure to pay out benefits was “either designed, conditioned or condoned” by Miami Beach, along with Johns Eastern, and the doctors who treated the officers.

“Instead of paying the impairment benefits, Defendant City of Miami Beach decided to place its profits over the health, welfare and well-being of the very same law-enforcement officers it relies on,” the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit also claims that Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act was violated because the officers were mailed letters and brochures that claimed that their payments would be made in a timely manner, but weren’t. The officers received payments, but not the full amounts they were entitled to, according to the suit.

Attorneys Edward Zebersky and Geoffrey Bichler are representing the plaintiffs.

City Attorney Smith shot off a memo to city commissioners and administrators in response to the suit.

“Simply put, this lawsuit is a farce,” he wrote.

Smith wrote that Florida law “clearly mandates that all claims for benefits must be made solely (through) the workers compensation system and not in a class action suit in circuit court.”

The lawsuit, Smith goes on to write, “is without merit for several other reasons. At the appropriate time, the city and Johns Eastern will seek significant sanctions against the police officers involved and their attorneys.”

In response to the memo, Zebersky had his own harsh words to share. He released a statement the next day, writing that Smith’s memo “never once” states that the officers are not entitled to the benefits.

“Rather, the City attorney told the Mayor and Commissioners that the claims are frivolous and a farce based on a matter of procedure.”

He went on to point to a Florida Supreme Court case, Aguilera v. Interservices Inc., that Zebersky says makes the lawsuit valid.

“So, the only farce is the lack of legal research that was conducted by the City Attorney prior to issuing the memorandum to the mayor and the commissioners.”

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.

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