ORLANDO, Fla. — “For professional firefighters, it is the pinnacle of most people’s career to get hired on by the City of Orlando,” District Chief Scott Suehle said.
A district chief of the Orlando Fire Department, Scott Suehle, is sharing his story with 9 Investigates, after being named in a lawsuit by the city following his claim for cancer benefits under Florida law.
The 2019 law provides a one-time $25,000 payout for any firefighter diagnosed with certain types of cancers and the costs of medical treatment. Investigative Reporter Karla Ray learned Orlando has already spent nearly $35,000 in attorney’s fees litigating the case.
The lawsuit is seeking a declaratory judgment on whether Suehle and another firefighter are entitled to the benefits spelled out in the law, since their cancer diagnoses came before the statute was enacted. Despite an initial court filing in favor of the firefighters, the case has been put on hold because of another, similar court battle in Volusia County.
Helmets hanging on the wall of his home represent the peak of Suehle’s firefighting career.
“I remember when I got the letter, how excited I was to get hired there,” Suehle said, his voice cracking.
It’s emotional for him to reflect on his nearly 27 years as an Orlando firefighter, where he’s risen the ranks to become a district chief.
“I feel as if I’ve poured my heart and soul into helping the citizens and visitors of Orlando,” Suehle said.
From fighting fires to fighting cancer, and now, fighting the city; Suehle says he was served the lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment while on shift in the summer of 2020, months after he filed a claim for a one-time $25,000 payout from the city for his 2016 diagnosis of colon cancer, along with costs of medical treatment.
Orlando city attorneys were seeking that judge’s opinion on whether Suehle, and another firefighter, were entitled to the benefits for occupational cancer under the 2019 state law because the initial diagnoses were “prior to the effective date of the statute.”
“I mean, it was outrageous that we were being sued,” Suehle said. “But then to add insult to injury was that they wanted us to pay for their lawyers fees, for them filing the suit against us. And not simply just coming out and denying the claim.”
The judge in the case interpreted the statute was “intended to apply to even those firefighters who were diagnosed before the statute’s enactment,” denying the city’s motion and noting Suehle and his co-defendant were entitled to claim benefits for their cancer costs.
But then, after a similar case we’ve told you about, in which retired Volusia County firefighter Kathleen Weaver’s claim was kicked up to the 5th District Court of Appeals, Orlando filed for a stay in its case, and no movement has happened since.
The 5th DCA just ruled in favor of Volusia County’s denial of Weaver’s claim in that case, so Suehle expects the fight to continue in his.
“Where does it stop? The city denies our case, so what are the next cases that they will deny?” Suehle said. “Not just the city, but the municipalities throughout the state?”
An Orlando spokesperson told 9 Investigates via email that as soon as the mandate is issued in the Volusia County case, they “expect the city case to be concluded accordingly.” The attorney for Weaver has filed a motion for re-hearing or to submit a question about the case to the Florida Supreme Court, meaning the fight is not over.
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