Attack, Workers' Comp Denial Haunt Teacher

On the morning of Oct. 11, an assault rendered Irene Muszynski a bloody mess.

After parking her car about a half-block from Grover Cleveland High School in Buffalo, N.Y. – where she has taught biology for the past 23 years – a young man wielding a wooden board beat her senseless and then stole her car.

Several weeks after the incident, Muszynski found out that her alleged assailant was a student at Grover Cleveland. That revelation prompted her to file a workers' compensation claim, which the Buffalo Schools challenged. On March 20, Judge Arthur Cooper of the State of New York Workers' Compensation Board ruled that Muszynski was not entitled to workers' compensation benefits because she was not assaulted on school property and because there was no “nexus” between the assault and her employment.

“The claimant [Muszynski] was not exposed to any risk not shared by the general public,” Cooper wrote in his opinion.

Muszynski still vividly recalls how the assault left her face, hair, arms and clothing “literally drenched in blood.” When she received a notice that her workers' compensation claim had been denied, she felt as if salt had been poured onto those wounds.

“How are you supposed to feel?” Muszynski told OccupationalHazards.com. “You feel like you've worked for a system so many years; you've put your life in it. This is your career, your life, your profession. You're dedicated, you're hard-working and you do the best that you can under all the circumstances. And then in the end you're just given another kick. You're down and you're kicked again.”

Many Buffalo Teachers Must Park on Public Streets

Muszynski said that she parked on a public street only because the parking lot at Grover Cleveland is far too small to accommodate the high school's teaching staff.

After the incident, Muszynski accompanied a Buffalo TV news crew to the high school and counted 17 parking spots – she noted that two cars might have been parked illegally – for an inner-city school that, according to the Buffalo Teachers Federation, has 85 teachers.

Joy Trotter, executive director for human resources for the Buffalo Public Schools, admitted that the parking lot at Grover Cleveland “doesn't nearly accommodate the staff that works there.” But, she added, “that's true at most of our schools.”

“I wish it could be different,” Trotter said.

Even so, Trotter – a former attorney – said that Muszynski's workers' comp claim would have been more legally “compelling” if Muszynski had parked in the school parking lot, “because at least the school district controls the parking lot.”

“We don't control the streets around the building,” Trotter said, “and the state compensation board agreed.”

Muszynski Using Sick Days While Recuperating

After the Oct. 11 assault, Muszynski said that she was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, where she received stitches and staples in her head, stitches near the left corner of her eye and stitches in her hand and finger. She said that her eye was swollen shut and she was dizzy for weeks.

Muszynski said that she still experiences pain wherever her assailant hit her with the wooden board. There's also the psychological trauma, which has made it difficult for her to decide whether to return to Grover Cleveland to teach.

“I have that fear of returning to the streets, parking outside of the school area and walking to the building and looking over my shoulder constantly, not knowing what else could possibly happen to me,” she said.

Muszynski has been at home ever since the assault, using sick days that she has accumulated over the course of her teaching career. If she runs out, her union, the Buffalo Teachers Federation, has a “sick bank” that she can draw from as well.

Trotter also noted that teachers with more than 10 years of experience are entitled to receive up to two 30-day extensions of sick leave.

“It's a tragic set of circumstances that any of our teachers is injured in this kind of way, but the fact is that we do have a very significant safety net for her,” Trotter said.

A "Despicable" Decision

If Muszynski's workers' compensation claim had been approved, Muszynski said that she “would not have gained financially.” She would have been entitled to her full salary and benefits for up to 5 years. However, she laments that the denial of her claim forces her to burn up her sick days while recuperating, and teachers are reimbursed for a portion of their unused sick days upon retirement.

Still, for Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore, the issue is not just sick days. Rumore asserted that the school district's decision to controvert Muszynski's workers' compensation claim – thereby leaving it up to a workers' compensation law judge to decide – sent a message to all teachers “that your safety is not important.”

“The [Buffalo Board of Education] did not have to controvert the case,” Rumore told OccupationalHazards.com. “They could have very easily said she deserves to be paid.”

Considering that Muszynski “was beaten within an inch of her life,” Rumore said that the school district's decision to controvert her workers' compensation claim “was a disgusting and despicable and uncaring act directed at a teacher.”

“A Legal Decision”

According to Trotter, the Buffalo Public Schools based its decision on the advice of EM Risk Management, a Syracuse, N.Y., firm that manages the school district's workers' compensation claims. The district is self-insured.

Ultimately, Trotter said, it was “a legal decision.”

“[EM Risk Management] looked at the situation and said that this individual [Muszynski] is not likely to be found by the workers' compensation board to have experienced a workers' comp injury because she wasn't at work at the time,” Trotter said.

Trotter said that to approve Muszynski's claim could have subjected the district to lawsuits “for waste of taxpayer finds.” She said that in addition to paying Muszynski's salary and benefits for up to 5 years, the district also would have had to pay a long-term substitute teacher a full salary and benefits, per the current union contract.

“There's actually a provision of the New York State Constitution that prohibits making a gift of public funds,” Trotter said. “ ... If you had a choice one way or the other and you gave away something you had no obligation to give away, then you have violated the state constitution. So for us, those two things – prudent fiscal management [of taxpayer dollars] and following what the law requires – they're the same thing.”

Rumore, however, argues that approving Muszynski's claim would not have been much of a financial hit for the school district.

“You're talking about a district that has a budget of probably close to $800 million,” Rumore said. “It's not like it's gonna sink the ship.”

Alleged Assailant Facing Felony Charges

According to the Erie County District Attorney's Office, Muszynski's alleged attacker – 17-year-old Terrance Johnson – has been indicted and arraigned on three counts of felony robbery. A pre-trial hearing has been scheduled for April 27 before Justice Penny Wolfgang in the New York State Supreme Court 8th Judicial District.

Muszynski said that she didn't realize that her alleged attacker was a student until several weeks after the assault, when she visited the school and saw the student in the library using a computer. She only later discovered that the student was registered in one of her biology labs, although she doesn't recall ever seeing him in class.

That played into Judge Arthur Cooper's decision, as Cooper concluded that “the only connection to [Muszynski's] employment is that the person who committed the assault was a student at the school at which the claimant was employed.”

Rumore called Cooper's decision an “injustice.”

“Obviously the student at the school knew that teachers would be going into the school and must have known that this is a teacher at this school, because he was probably laying in wait for her,” Rumore said. “It's obvious that he just wasn't walking down the street and said, 'Well, I just happen to have a board in my hand at this particular time and let me just club this innocent civilian here.'”

Muszynski Will Appeal

Attorney Jerry Gambino, who is representing Muszynski, told OccupationalHazards.com that he is preparing an appeal of Cooper's verdict.

Although Gambino acknowledged that under New York state law, workers' compensation does not apply to travel to and from work, he asserted that “there are gray areas in workers' comp, which many people don't realize.”

“I think we have a shot on appeal,” Gambino said. If not, he added, he might take the case to a higher state court.

Still, a successful appeal likely wouldn't change Muszynski's opinion of the school district.

“They really don't give a darn what happens to us anyway,” she said.

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