01/31/2008

Fla. officer: I was fired after having heart attack

By Susannah Bryan
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Related: Heart attacks on duty

DAVIE, Fla. — For 12 years, Mike Necolettos put his life on the line.

As a Davie police officer promoted to sergeant six years ago, he arrested drunks, nabbed burglars, responded to violent accidents and twice ducked bullets.

Now the married father of three sits home battling high blood pressure and feeling betrayed by the town he spent more than a decade serving. Necolettos, 37, accuses Davie of illegally firing him.

A good cop by all accounts, Necolettos says he lost his job Jan. 9 because of a heart attack he had while on duty in May.

"I was a cop all these years," Necolettos said last week from his home in Davie. "You give your all and then you're fired."

Davie also fired Lt. Greg Mize the same day. Like Necolettos, Mize had been unable to return to work after suffering multiple heart attacks, said his attorney, Andrea Wolfson. The town sent both officers letters dated Jan. 3 terminating them because they could no longer perform their jobs and needed to be replaced.

Both letters, signed by then-Human Resources Director Mark Alan, thank the officers for their service and cite "exemplary" personnel records.

Mize, 47, had worked for the town 21 years.

Town spokesman Braulio Rosa declined to comment, citing privacy laws.

Florida law presumes police officers and firefighters with heart disease got it from on-the-job stress. The law requires cities and counties to pay workers' comp and retirement benefits to officers and firefighters with heart-related illnesses.

The town violated that state law as well as workers' comp statutes when it fired Necolettos, said his attorney, Robert Winess, of West Palm Beach.

"They fired him saying he could not perform his job," Winess said. "But the whole reason he can't is because of this work-related heart attack."

When he became a police officer at 24, Necolettos said, his heart worked just fine. He can prove it: He passed a physical before he was hired.

At the time of his heart attack on May 3, Necolettos was working the graveyard shift patrolling in his cruiser. Around midnight he had trouble breathing, called for help and pulled over. Fellow officers found him slumped behind the wheel.

"It's horrible," Necolettos said of being fired. "It's the worst emotional problem you can imagine. It's not like I shot or killed or beat somebody. I went to work and did my job and had a heart attack."

The town's treatment of Necolettos is unusual, said David Murrell, executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, adding that most police officers in his situation are given time to apply for disability pensions rather than being fired and left to fend for themselves with no health insurance or workers' comp benefits.

"Sounds like Davie is taking a hard line," he said. "Some agencies are more compassionate than others."

Necolettos has filed a grievance with the town, claiming he was wrongfully terminated. His attorney predicts the matter will be settled in court.

Necolettos, whose salary was $83,000, frets over how he'll support his family and what he'll do when his health insurance ends on Thursday. He can't afford $1,600 a month for COBRA and a decision on his disability pension is months away.

In the meantime, the stress of losing his job has not exactly helped his blood pressure, he said. "It's been 180 over 120."

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