Suffolk police and county officials denied career opportunities to a former cop and shorted him on his pension because of his decades of service in the New York National Guard, according to a federal lawsuit.
The lawsuit filed Tuesday by Matthew Bjelobrk, a 22-year veteran of the Suffolk County Police Department who retired in 2016, seeks at least $30 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
The complaint, which alleges the department and the county violated the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Act and New York Human Rights Laws, said Bjelobrk was denied opportunities because his supervisors said it was difficult to schedule him due to his commitment to the National Guard.
The department also used an inappropriate formula to calculate his pension that cheated him out of $1,500 a month, according to court papers that name the police department, the county and the Suffolk Department of Human Resources, Personnel and Civil Service as defendants.
“I enjoyed my employment with the Suffolk County Police Department and I am proud to have been a Suffolk police officer,” Bjelobrk said Wednesday. “But something needs to change.”
Representatives of Suffolk County, the police department and the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association said they could not comment on pending litigation. A spokesman for the Suffolk Superior Officers Association did not immediately return calls requesting comment.
Bjelobrk said that while Suffolk police say they welcome recruits with military experience, the department does not accommodate schedules of officers who serve in the National Guard. Other officers, Bjelobrk said, have complained to him about discrimination because of their military service.
“It is understood that if you are in the Guard or the reserves, you will never go anywhere in the Suffolk County Police Department,” said Bjelobrk, who became a sergeant through the civil services system in 2007.
According to the court papers, Bjelobrk joined the U.S. Army Reserves in 1988 and the New York Army National Guard in 1991. He graduated from Army flight school in 1993 and and commaned a helicopter company from 1995 through 2001. Bjelobrk was deployed with the Army in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Kansas from 2004 to 2014.
After serving seven years with the NYPD, Bjelobrk joined the Suffolk police department in 1994 and was assigned to the Third Precinct in Bay Shore, where a lieutenant complained about his position with the National Guard.
“Soon after starting work at the Third Precinct, Lt. Donna Engel of the SCPD informed plaintiff, in sum and substance, that plaintiff’s active membership in the United States Army Reserve was difficult to manage on the schedule and the coverage for his service was too expensive,” the lawsuit — filed in the Eastern District of New York by attorney Raymond Negron of Mount Sinai — says.
The lawsuit alleges Bjelobrk was denied opportunities to work on the Aviation unit, the Highway Motorcycle unit, the Community Oriented Police Enforcement unit, the K-9 unit, the Firearms and Tactics unit and as a drug recognition instructor.
The New York State Pension Fund for Suffolk police determines pensions by reviewing officers’ best-paid 36 consecutive months and then awarding them the average annual salary for that period. Suffolk County and the police department, according to the lawsuit, short-changed Bjelobrk by including a period when he was performing active military duty, which means the pension he was awarded in 2017 is $1,500 less per month than it shoud be, the lawsuit contends.
“It feels like an injustice,” Bjelobrk said. “You dedicate your life to law enforcement for three decades...it hurts.”