Mission to ask Texas Municipal League to reconsider suing city firefighter

MISSION — After the Texas Municipal League filed a lawsuit on behalf of the city against firefighter Homer Salinas, city leaders are left with limited options as to how to help their employee.

During a special called meeting Wednesday, the city council decided it would draft a letter to TML asking it to allow city leaders to go before its board and argue their position as to why the lawsuit should be dropped.

“That’s the only viable option that we have in accordance with the best information we have at this time,” said Mission Mayor Armando O’Caña.

The city’s insurance carrier, the TML Intergovernmental Risk Pool, denied Salinas’ workers’ compensation claim in 2017, claiming the 52-year-old’s kidney cancer diagnosis was not job-related. Salinas appealed and last year a Texas Department of Insurance administrative judge sided with him, a decision TDI’s appeals panel upheld in December.

TML’s decision to take Salinas to court — and request a local district court judge review TDI’s final ruling — was not done maliciously, said Bennett Sandlin, TML’s executive director. Rather, it was the only way the association can appeal an adverse administrative ruling.

“It’s really awkward that the only way the pool of cities can continue the appeal process is to technically sue the person; that’s terrible optics,” Sandlin said. “We have no desire to sue an ill firefighter. That’s just the procedural step to go to next.”

The municipal insurer only provides workers’ compensation to city employees diagnosed with testicular, prostate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and per state law, it cannot pay claims that fall outside the statute of what is covered, Sandlin said. Doing so, he added, “would violate the Texas Constitution which prohibits the giving of public funds not authorized by state law.”

Salinas, who attended Wednesday’s meeting along with firefighters from Mission and McAllen, who are also covered by the same insurance pool, said he is alarmed by the amount of power TML has over his employer.

“They’re backing me up, but their hands are tied too,” he said of Mission’s action Wednesday. “My question is, how did we get to this point? How can you let a municipality give that much power to a second entity and you have no control over it?”

O’Caña said he was unsure how long Mission has been part of TML’s risk pool, but that it was at least 15 years.

The mayor said he believed this was the first time the city “has gone to this level” to challenge the association’s decision regarding workers’ compensation benefits.

TML is challenging about a dozen cases involving cancers not covered under its policy, Sandlin said, noting Salinas’ case has moved faster through the appeals process than most. Depending on the district judge’s ruling, he said the association is prepared to fight it at the higher level, going so far as to take it to the Supreme Court if it came to that.

A ruling by a judge could set a precedent that would encourage more firefighters to file workers’ compensation claims related to cancer diagnoses.

“(TML) filed (the lawsuit) because they don’t want no other firefighter to file,” Salinas said. “They’re making it hard … they spend more in legal fees than my actual claim was.”

While he cannot disclose the amount of workers’ compensation he received, the lawsuit notes it amounts to more than $50,000.

“I’m fighting for my brothers that passed away,” Salinas said of his motivation to continue challenging the initial ruling.

“When you get this type of cancer or any type of cancer and you have to go through the red tape, most firefighters die (because) it takes that long.”

When asked about the city’s decision to send a letter to TML, interim City Attorney Bob Galligan said, “whether they’ll do something, I have no idea. Will they listen, yes, I think they’ll listen.”