Horrors of the Courtroom Lead Stenographer To Seek Disability Pension
By Matt McDonald | December 30, 2016, 8:41 EST
A former court stenographer is asking a judge to grant her a disability state pension stemming from the accounts of crimes she had to listen to and record.
For 10 years Mary K. Morse heard stories of child abuse, murder, domestic violence, and child pornography while working at Salem Superior Court. The cases depressed her and led her to start drinking heavily again after a previous period of sobriety, according to court documents.
She is receiving a modest state pension now, but she is seeking a much larger accidental disability pension.
Morse, 63, who at the time was known as Mary K. Hezekiah, worked as a court reporter for the Massachusetts Superior Court from 1999 to 2009.
Her cases included Christopher Reardon, a church youth minister and Boy Scout leader who pleaded guilty in 2001 to raping and indecently assaulting dozens of boys on the North Shore.
A court reporter, as the state officially calls the job, sits in the front of a courtroom and speaks into a stenographer’s mask to help make a verbatim record of the statements made by lawyers, judges, and witnesses. The court reporter also marks exhibits, which in Morse’s case included gruesome pictures and bloody clothes.
The experiences disturbed Morse. She had previously kicked a drinking problem, but around 2007 she resumed drinking heavily. At that point, according to court documents, “Ms. Morse could no longer compartmentalize and leave her distress in the courtroom.”
Nor could she find a constructive outlet for her emotions.
“Her friends … did not want to hear about the terrible cases she reported, so she learned not to talk about them. She would perseverate over crimes, wondering why they happened and what could be done about it. She began to have difficulty sleeping and eating. She felt depressed, angry, and fearful,” court documents state.
As her distress and drinking escalated, her performance at work deteriorated, leading a court supervisor in January 2008 to admonish her for the quality of her work and “the increasing lack of professionalism” she displayed in interactions with judges and lawyers and court colleagues.
In October 2009 she told a therapist that she wanted to leave her job but was concerned about finding another job.
That month, she drove after a night of heavy drinking and flipped her car, sustaining several injuries, court documents state. Authorities found that her blood alcohol content was .0391 percent, or almost five times the legal limit, court documents state.
One day the following month, on November 18, 2009, Morse heard 23 cases in court that included child pornography, rape of a child, murder, armed robbery, and assault and battery on a child.
The next day, according to court documents, a court official received a report that Morse was “acting inappropriately in court, speaking loudly, interrupting witnesses and the judge. It was also reported that she smelled of alcohol.”
That was her last day on the job. She eventually went on an unpaid leave of absence under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.
She filed for retirement in 2011.
In August 2012 a psychiatrist diagnosed Morse with alcohol dependence, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder.
In April 2013 Morse won a lump-sum workers compensation award of $75,000.
But her quest for an accidental disability pension has zigzagged.
The State Retirement Board turned her down in September 2013.
An administrative law judge reversed that decision about nine months later, momentarily granting the special pension.
“I conclude that the Petitioner’s exposure to horrific events in the courtroom resulted in her disability through gradual deterioration and was, in fact, the proximate cause of her disability,” administrative law judge Maria A. Imparato wrote in a decision dated June 27, 2014.
But then the state Contributory Retirement Appeals Board this past August reversed the reversal, again denying the special pension.
At stake is a lot of money. With 10 years of service Morse qualified for an ordinary state pension, which she is receiving. But the terms of a so-called accidental disability pension are much more generous.
Court documents don’t offer figures for Morse’s case. But rough calculations offer an idea.
Massachusetts court stenographers typically earned a base salary of about $60,000 a year in 2009.
Morse turned 58 in 2011, the year she filed for a pension.
At 58 years old, a state employee with 10 years of service who filed for an ordinary state pension five years ago would have been entitled to 18 percent of the average of the three highest years of base salary. (That assumes the maximum possible amount, known as Option A, which assumes the state employee didn’t provide a survivor benefit for a spouse in case the employee dies first.) Such a state pension is not subject to state income tax but is subject to federal income tax.
But an accidental disability pension is a much better deal. The state worker who qualifies gets 72 percent of the salary at the time of the disability, and it’s not subject either to state or federal income tax.
So Morse would get four times as much even without the tax benefit.
Court documents do not state Morse’s salary at the time she left state service.
But using a three-year average base salary of $60,000 as an example: A state employee with 10 years of service who retired at age 58 in 2009 with a regular pension with no survivor benefit could expect to receive $10,800 a year for the rest of her life, subject to federal income tax.
A state employee with 10 years of service who retired in 2009 with an accidental disability pension could expect a pension of $43,200 a year, not subject to state or federal income tax.
The “accidental” in accidental disability pension is misleading, because it doesn’t just refer to disabilities incurred in accidents. It can also occur to “gradual deterioration” from exposure at work to a condition that is identifiable but “not common and necessary to all or a great many occupations,” according to a 1985 Massachusetts Appeals Court case.
Morse’s case suggests a question that led the pension appeal board (in part) to deny her request for the accidental disability pension: Couldn’t anyone who works in the court system and hears horrible stories make a similar claim?
The pension appeals board in its decision this past August acknowledged the disturbing cases that Morse encountered.
“Unfortunately, however, exposure to violence, including graphic accounts of crime and the handling of physical exhibits such as clothing and weapons, is a necessary and frequent component of many jobs in the judicial system and in law enforcement,” wrote the board, which includes assistant attorney general Catherine E. Sullivan, commissioner of public health appointee Elizabeth Susan Dougherty, and governor’s appointee Russell W. Gilfus.
Morse’s lawyer, Nicholas Poser, who has an office in Boston, acknowledges that Morse’s case is unusual. Poser, who specializes in representing public employees, said in an interview that he has never encountered a similar case in more than 30 years of practicing law.
But that doesn’t mean the floodgates will open if Morse wins her case, Poser said, calling that notion “absurd.”
He noted that state workers who apply for a disability pension have to go through a three-member panel of experts who examine closely medical records and evidence of disability. Many cases are denied, he said, and even cases that are eventually approved often drag on for years.
“There’s a rigorous proof process,” Poser told NewBostonPost. “It’s certainly a new area of liability, if you will, but I would suspect that if Ms. Morse’s case is successful in court, as I think it will be, I think there will at most be two or three cases a year that will be applied for, much less granted.”
Morse’s appeal was filed in Suffolk Superior Court in Boston on Tuesday, December 27.
A spokesman for the state Contributory Retirement Appeals Board could not immediately be reached for comment.