Dispute between Utica and its former fire chief goes to court

Dec 26, 2017

The city of Utica and its former fire department chief continue to battle in court, and in the public arena, over a dispute about his service in the aftermath of 9/11. At issue is whether Russell Brooks contracted leukemia as a result of his time on ground zero in the days that followed the terrorist attack.

Brooks says the disagreement is costing the city money.

Under a new law that Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed on the 16th anniversary of 9/11 this year, municipalities can get reimbursed by the state for the money they spend on sick leave for any firefighters who assisted in the rescue efforts at ground zero. Brooks filed an application for the city to get that reimbursement, but Utica denied it.

"I get nothing, no monetary incentives for me to get this, it's the city that would benefit," Brooks said. "It's exclusively personal and politics."

Brooks says he just wants the city to acknowledge that he got the disease from his service in New York City. His medical bills are already covered by the World Trade Center Health Program, which determined that he contracted the leukemia as a result of his service.

But Utica attorney Armond Festine says the city's doctors determined there was no causal relationship.

"This is what we do in every case when this comes along when you have a member of the police department or member of the fire department claiming a job related disability," Festine said. "We don't have medical degrees. We practice law. And we obtain medical advice and information, and basically we followed the advice of our doctors."

Brooks took that denied application to court, but lost recently on a technicality.

The city placed Brooks on leave earlier this year, citing other medical conditions as the reason. He continues using the sick time he has accumulated after serving the department for 42 years and will reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 next fall. But Brooks says he's not done pursuing his legal options.