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The Injury and the Odyssey 

A deputy sheriff's 10-year adventure in bureaucratic limbo

Wednesday, Aug 2 2000
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William Setzler's career as a deputy sheriff came to an end only seven months after it began, on Jan. 20, 1990. At 8:30 that morning, Setzler was called to the first floor of the San Bruno County Jail, where he worked as a jailer, to prepare for a "shakedown" of the cells on the south side. Setzler was stationed at the opposite end of the jail, and had to pass through a heavy metal security gate. He stuck his key in the gate's lock and turned, but it would not open. He knew the other deputy sheriffs were waiting for him, so he tried shaking the bars. When the gate still didn't open, he kicked it sharply a half-dozen times. The gate finally yielded, and he made his way to meet the other deputy sheriffs.

By the end of the day, Setzler noticed that he was having a hard time putting weight on his kicking foot. He was sent to the jail infirmary and was given a few days off.

Little did he know, as he sat at home resting what he assumed was a minor injury, that his life and career would never be the same. In the 10 years since his accident, his foot has not gotten better, Setzler says. Though he has seen a rotating cast of doctors, none of them knows how to diagnose or treat his injury. They speculate that Setzler might have a central nerve impairment, and he has been through a surgery and gone to about 75 sessions of physical therapy. Nothing seems to help.

Perhaps just as painful, Setzler's injury has made him the star of a bureaucratic soap opera that leaves him in a compromising Catch-22, strung between one agency -- the city's Retirement Board -- that ardently believes he is not disabled, and another agency -- the Sheriff's Department -- that just as ardently believes he is. For more than a decade, Setzler has been denied both disability pension and the ability to return to work, leaving him entangled in a series of Retirement Board hearings, court appeals, and doctors appointments. Setzler's attorneys call the case convoluted. Setzler calls it "the case from hell."

Though Setzler's injured foot has qualified him for temporary workers' compensation, the city doesn't want to give him a permanent disability retirement pension. But at the same time, the Sheriff's Department, another arm of the city, refuses to let Setzler return to work because city-appointed doctors will not give him a medical release. Even Setzler's boss, Sheriff Michael Hennessey, believes Setzler should be retired, and, in a rare move, filed an application on Setzler's behalf. But still, the city's Retirement Board calls Setzler a fraud and has summarily denied both applications for Setzler's disability retirement.

"This is an example of how the city is multiheaded, and they don't function in any logical way," says Vincent Courtney, one of Setzler's attorneys. "Departments don't cooperate with each other."

Now a baby-faced 51-year-old, Setzler joined the San Francisco Sheriff's Department in May 1989 at the age of 39. He was known for his athleticism, often running seven miles before a long day's work as a jailer at the San Bruno County Jail. Setzler is still considered a deputy sheriff because he hasn't officially retired, but he is unable to walk more than a few blocks without limping. In fact, Setzler hasn't seen active duty since January 1990, when he hurt himself on the job.

In the decade since his accident, Setzler has set out on a crusade to vindicate himself in the courts and claim the hundreds of thousands of dollars he feels the city owes him in pension and back pay. In the last decade, Setzler has been paid between $140 and $250 a week in workers' compensation. The City Attorney's Office estimates that since the accident, Setzler has received about $200,000 of city disability money. Setzler's attorneys argue, however, that San Francisco is stingy when it comes to tapping into its $12.4 billion retirement fund, which has one of the largest surpluses in the country.

Setzler first filed his application for disability retirement in December 1991; the city spent five years looking over Setzler's case, even hiring private investigators to secretly videotape Setzler outside of his home. The city also sent Setzler to Dr. Richard Coughlin, who has concluded in at least six medical reports that Setzler shouldn't go back to work as a deputy sheriff.

Between doctor visits, Setzler asked the Sheriff's Department to permanently reassign him to desk work, but department policy would only allow Setzler to take a temporary desk job, and he needed to get a medical release form first.

Setzler was then sent to another city-appointed doctor, Conrad Clifford. In a June 1991 report, Clifford stated that Setzler was "anxious to get back to work" and was "fully capable of resuming his work as a deputy sheriff."

Yet when Setzler repeatedly tried to return to his job at the San Bruno Jail over the next three months, he was turned away each time.

The department told Setzler that he needed to get a medical release from his doctor. But Coughlin would not give him one, and Clifford refused to see him. Clifford's office told Setzler and a city workers' compensation employee that the doctor had only been asked to issue a one-time medical opinion, and would do no more.

Setzler went to see three more doctors, one of them selected by both the city and Setzler. All of the doctors agreed that Setzler was not fit to work as a deputy sheriff.

Even with a stack of medical reports supporting Setzler's case, the Retirement Board denied his application for a disability pension in May 1996. The City Attorney's Office says the decision was based on medical reports, testimony, and, particularly, the secret videotapings of Setzler, which showed Setzler walking without a limp and carrying luggage down a flight of stairs. They also relied on Clifford's medical opinion that Setzler should return to work.

"Basically this guy is a scam artist," says Marc Slavin of the City Attorney's Office, which is handling the case for the Retirement Board. ""Legitimacy' is not a word I would use to describe this case."

But Jim Harrigan, Sheriff Hennessey's attorney, believes that the Retirement Board looked at the evidence in the wrong light. "The hearing officer and the Retirement Board drew negative inferences [of the evidence] that I didn't particularly believe were conclusive," Harrigan says. "They questioned the nature of the injury to begin with. They felt he was malingering. Thereafter, there was the videotape that, in my mind, supported his disability claim. Is the glass half full or half empty? They saw it as half empty."

Undeterred, Setzler took his case to San Francisco Superior Court, to get the Retirement Board's decision reversed, but his case was rejected. Setzler filed an appeal in August 1998, but that was denied in April of this year.

In a legal last gasp, Setzler filed yet another complaint this month, arguing that the city cannot at once deny him his disability and block him from going back to work. Setzler is aiming the suit at the Sheriff's Department, which has ironically been lobbying for his retirement. Setzler's attorney cites case law from a San Diego court that says a city cannot hold an individual at the mercy of two conflicting city agencies.

Though Setzler says this prolonged lawsuit has led to a personal financial crisis, he refuses to give up. He hasn't applied for other jobs because he doesn't want to give up his right to keep fighting the city for a pension he believes he justly deserves.

"They figure that I can't hold out much longer and I'll be forced to walk away," Setzler says. "I'll keep fighting as long as it takes, and pursue any other possibilities that I can. I don't want to see the city do to others what it did to me, and the only way is to keep fighting."

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Bernice Yeung

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