Tennessee Court of Appeals Decides Monumental Case for Chattanooga Firefighter


Recently, in a powerful and detailed opinion, the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed a ruling from Hamilton County Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton to award Firefighter Matthew Long disability benefits stemming from his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) diagnosis.

When a first responder becomes too disabled to continue working in their career, the Chattanooga Fire and Police Pension Fund provides its members with disability benefits if they meet certain criteria.  As the Court of Appeals noted

The [Fund’s] Policy provides that an applicant can only obtain benefits for a job-related disability based on PTSD if the disability “is a direct result of a traumatic event that is… b. undesigned or unexpected[.]” However, the Policy makes no effort to define the term “unexpected” if it is “outside the realm of normal duties that firefighters routinely face and are expected to handle.”

Firefighter Long, in his application for disability benefits, listed several traumatic events over the course of his seventeen (17) year career that caused him to be diagnosed with debilitating PTSD.  Firefighter Long was deemed unfit for duty by the City of Chattanooga and sought early retirement with disability benefits from the Pension Fund.

The Pension Fund denied those benefits without explanation following a hearing. Firefighter Long challenged that decision in Hamilton County Chancery Court and was successful. The Pension Fund then appealed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

Janie Parks Varnell and Logan Davis with Davis & Hoss, P.C. represented Firefighter Long throughout this case and argued the case at the Court of Appeals.  You can watch the Oral Arguments here.

The Fund essentially argued that the term “unexpected” in their policy meant that if the event that caused an applicant’s PTSD is the type of event that the applicant trained for as part of his or her job, then that event could never be deemed “unexpected” pursuant to the policy.  In laymen’s terms: it’s the equivalent of saying “they signed up for this.”

Firefighter Long argued that the Fund was creating an impossible burden. If that were the standard, no traumatic event would ever qualify, and no first responder would ever get PTSD disability benefits.  The Court of Appeals agreed, stating,

“The Fund’s proposed construction creates a nearly insurmountable burden on employees suffering from mental injuries caused by traumatic events that occur during and as a result of the member’s regular or assigned duties. We agree with the trial court’s decision that the Board’s denial of Long’s application is arbitrary and capricious.”

The Court of Appeals affirmed Chancellor Atherton and awarded Firefighter Long his PTSD disability benefits, beginning January 2021.

This decision also establishes an important precedent that the Chattanooga Fire and Police Pension Fund cannot ignore: that PTSD following exposure to multiple traumatic events while doing their job is and should be recognized as an on-the-job injury for first responders.

You can read the full opinion from the Court of Appeals here.