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City questions injuries, but cop wins top disability benefits

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Updated: August 17, 2012 6:05AM

Weeks after she leveled sexual harassment charges against some co-workers 19 years ago, Chicago Police Officer Kimberly Miller-Shemash suffered what turned out to be a career-ending injury when someone didn’t replace the lug nuts on her squad car.

Challenged over the severity of her injuries, she had to sue the city to get a lifetime of disability benefits from the squad-car mishap — a deal that would become one of the richest ever given to an injured Chicago cop.

She also ended up filing a sexual harassment lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department and shared in a $725,000 settlement with two other female officers.

Shemash, 49 — who spent less than four years on the job — now gets $62,780 a year in tax-free disability pay. She has collected more than $775,000 so far, records show. If she remains on disability until she reaches mandatory retirement at 63, she will end up getting a total of $1.6 million.

When a wheel came off her squad car on June 8, 1993, Shemash says she was left with injuries including nerve damage limiting the use of her right hand.

City doctors didn’t think she was so badly hurt, though, that she couldn’t return to the police department, records show. They ordered her back, but she refused and filed for disability benefits.

But the police pension board refused her request for lifetime disability checks. It said her injuries had nothing to do with the squad-car accident.

So she sued and won.

Shemash — a stay-at-home single mother of twin teenage daughters born while she was on disability — is now one of 19 officers classified as permanently and totally disabled, the classification that carries the greatest benefits.

The list also includes Jim Mullen, who was shot in the face on duty and is a quadriplegic as a result, and Cedric Brumley, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a squad-car wreck.

Besides the questions about Shemash’s injuries raised by city doctors, her ex-husband, police Sgt. Michael Shemash “denies that Kimberly suffered severe injuries while working as a police officer,” divorce records show.

Two years ago, Shemash submitted a doctor’s report to the pension fund saying she couldn’t work because she’s unable to safely fire a gun or walk without help. When Sun-Times reporters visited her at her two-story home in Shorewood, near Joliet, Shemash walked down the porch steps without a cane or any other aid.

“I haven’t done anything wrong,” Shemash said last week. “I went by all the rules.”

Shemash joined the police department on Dec. 26, 1989, shortly after turning 27. While in the police academy, she accused a male cop of sexually harassing her — claims she would continue to raise over the next four years involving other officers. Here’s a timeline of her legal battles:

Feb. 11, 1993 — Her sergeant files a formal complaint with internal affairs regarding her sexual harassment allegations.

June 8, 1993 — Shemash and her partner, Officer Frank J. DiMaria, pick up a squad car from the motor maintenance division at Kedzie and Harrison, but someone hadn’t put the lug nuts on the left rear wheel. As DiMaria drives off, the wheel comes off, and the car slams to ground and skids 10 feet.

Shemash says she suffered back injuries from bouncing in the passenger seat and goes on sick leave. It’s unclear whether DiMaria, now a police union vice president, also was hurt.

“I have nothing to say to you guys,” he told reporters.

Aug. 4, 1993 — Shemash files a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, accusing the police department of sexual harassment.

Aug. 16, 1993 — Dr. James Bransfield, a doctor for the police department, orders Shemash back to work. She later amends her EEOC claim to accuse the doctor of retaliation.

May 6, 1994 — The EEOC gives Shemash permission to sue the city. The same month, she marries fellow cop Michael Shemash and gets permission from doctors to suspend her therapy while they honeymoon, records show.

Aug. 5, 1994 — Shemash files her sexual-harassment lawsuit.

Sept. 26, 1994 — Shemash undergoes surgery on her neck. She asks the police pension fund to give her “duty disability.”

Sept. 28, 1995 — The pension board rejects Shemash’s claim for duty disability — a benefit worth about $1.1 million — but grants her the lesser classification of “ordinary disability,” worth $28,311, records show. The board says “the pain presently complained of by the officer as preventing her from returning to work as a police officer is not the result of the occurrence of June 8, 1993.”

Nov. 8, 1995 — Shemash sues the pension fund.

Nov. 1, 1996 — A judge awards her duty disability payments. The pension fund doesn’t appeal.

Fall 1998 — Shemash spends 15 days in a deposition with city attorneys over her sexual harassment case, records show.

Feb. 19, 1999 — City Hall settles the harassment case, paying Shemash and the two other female officers $725,000. The city had paid more than $600,000 in legal fees to fight the suit.

July 12, 2001 — Gov. George Ryan signs a law that creates a “permanent and total disability” benefit for Chicago cops who are unable to ever work again, guaranteeing them 75 percent of the pay they would have made if they stayed on the job.

March 25, 2004 — Shemash, a member of the police union’s disability committee, gets the new benefit, which increases her disability checks by 26 percent — a benefit worth hundreds of thousands over her lifetime.

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