Legal Lesson: When applying for Public Safety Officer Death Benefits, fight the bureaucracy, and don't accept "No" for an answer. Seymour Winuk (father of Glenn Winuk, deceased) v. United States, U.S. Court of Federal Claims, June 20, 2007.
Introduction: When terrorists flew aircraft into the World Trade Center on 9/11/01, attorney Glenn Winuk, Esq., 40, responded exactly as he had been trained since becoming a volunteer firefighter/EMT on Long Island in 1979. He first helped evacuate personnel from the building where his law firm was located, adjacent to the World Trade Center. Then he grabbed a stethoscope, surgical gloves, and ran into the South Tower to offer his assistance to FDNY - and died in the building collapse. His body was not recovered until March, 2002, and was located near FDNY rescuers from what was the lobby of the South Tower. In his wallet was his Jericho Fire Department identification card.
Claim for benefits: Glenn's parents filed a claim for benefits under the Public Safety Officers' Death Benefits Act of 1976. But the Department of Justice questioned Glenn's status as a "public safety officer" since in 1998, Glenn had changed his status with the Jerico Fire Department from "active" to "associate member" and his EMT certificate expired.
The family supported their claim with two letters from Jerico Fire Chief John Lottes. Chief Lottes' letter of March 31, 2002 said, "As Chief of the Jericho Fire Department as someone familiar with Glenn's actions on September 11 and his firefighting career, my view is that Glenn Winuk should be recognized by all as having been 'lost in the line of duty' while acting as a rescuer representing the Jericho Fire Department."
Chief Lottes wrote a second letter on May 1, 2002, "In my opinion, Glenn was acting as a bona fide agent of the Jericho Fire Department, acting directly on its behalf, while assisting FDNY with rescue and emergency care operations in the South Tower of the World Trade Center."
Claim denied first time by Department of Justice: On July 20, 2004, the claim was denied on the basis that the fire chief failed to clearly certify that Glenn was a public safety officer, but only that Glenn "should" be so recognized.
Congress defined the term "public safety officer" as "an individual serving a public agency in an official capacity, with or without compensation, as a law enforcement officer, as a firefighter, as a chaplain, or as a member of a rescue squad or ambulance crew." (42 U.S. Code 3796b.)
Glenn's parents wisely filed an appeal to an independent hearing officer, and sought support from the New York state legislature.
New York Legislature: The New York Legislature in Albany, NY, passed a statute which was signed into law on Aug. 2, 2005 by Governor George Pataki. The act stated that Glenn "who served as a firefighter and emergency medical technician with the Jerico volunteer fire department for 19 years...shall be deemed to have been an active member of the Jerico volunteer fire department at the time of his death with full active employment status."
Hearing Officer Grants Claim: Daniel Skoler, an independent hearing officer, conducted a hearing, and on Sept. 10, 2005, granted the claim. Significantly, he found that Glenn's status as an "associate member" of the Jericho Fire Department prevented him from "from engaging in firefighting activities (as opposed to emergency medical assistance)."
He further found that New York law allowed the FDNY to accept assistance from trained EMS providers, like Glenn, given their "acute need for qualified EMT assistance" at the World Trade Center. The hearing officer also said that in addition to the New York bill recognizing Glenn to have been an active member of the fire department, there was "compelling evidence" that FDNY incident commanders gave Glenn permission to lend assistance in the South Tower, given the Jerico Fire Department ID card found in his wallet, and Glenn's training on the need to check in with incident command.