SAN ANTONIO – UPDATE - This story has been updated to include a statement from Bexar County on the legal filing
More than two years after her husband became the first Bexar County Sheriff’s deputy to die of complications from COVID-19, Pauline Pezina De La Fuente continues a drawn out legal battle for his county death benefits.
While the county has repeatedly honored the memory of Deputy Timothy De La Fuente publicly, his widow’s claim for benefits was denied.
Twice last year, an administrative judge sided with Pezina De La Fuente, forcing the county, a self-insured entity, to cover the $1,922 cost to cremate De La Fuente’s remains and to pay his widow weekly death benefits.
The county, according to court records made public earlier this year, appealed both rulings.
In the first instance, an appeals panel reversed the decision and sent the case back for a second contested hearing.
After the administrative judge in late September again ruled that Pezina De La Fuente was entitled to death benefits and reimbursement for cremation costs, the county again appealed the case.
In late January, the county filed suit against Pezina De La Fuente in state district court, asking a judge to reverse the administrative judge’s and second appeals’ panel rulings.
Pezina De La Fuente, 70, said if she’s stripped of the benefits, which amount to less than $4,000 a month, she will be forced to re-enter the workforce.
“The fact that the county continues to deny this claim is shameless, it’s disgusting. It’s like my husband didn’t exist,” said Pezina De La Fuente.
Dry cough turns deadly within days
Deputy De La Fuente, 53, developed a dry cough on a Monday in late April 2020 while assigned to the Bexar County Jail annex.
The cough, according to his widow, progressed to shortness of breath and by Wednesday, De La Fuente was too ill to work.
Thursday morning, shortly after De La Fuente had called in sick for his morning shift at the jail for the second day in a row, he collapsed inside the couple’s far North Side home.
“And when I took his glasses off and I was looking at him, I looked in his eyes and my husband was gone. He wasn’t breathing. There was nothing behind those eyes,” said Pezina De La Fuente.
Pezina De La Fuente said paramedics were outside her home at the time of her husband’s death, but were delayed in coming inside because they had to put on hazmat suits.
She said paramedics worked on her husband for 40 minutes, at one point injecting him with fluids, to no avail.
A city health official told Pezina De La Fuente a COVID-19 test administered to her husband days earlier had come back positive, but that he had died before health officials could reach him with the information.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, who was among the large group of BCSO deputies who came to the couple’s home shortly after De La Fuente’s death, publicly labeled it an on-duty death and said the detention officer had been assigned to a jail “hot spot,” an area overrun with the deadly virus at the time.
After De La Fuente’s death, his widow found a stretchy, cloth mask with his work uniform. This was a common type of mask worn by BCSO detention officers during the early months of the pandemic, as stronger personal protective equipment was in short supply.
De La Fuente, a 27-year veteran of BCSO, was given an honor procession and within days of his passing, the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed he died from complications of COVID-19. Other factors that contributed to De La Fuente’s death were hypertension and cardiomegaly, or an enlarged heart, the ME’s Office said at the time.
De La Fuente was honored again during funeral services in July 2020. The services were delayed, in part, to give Pezina De La Fuente herself time to recover from COVID-19 after likely contracting the virus from her husband.
The couple’s home now includes a permanent shrine to De La Fuente and a room full of medals and declarations he has received following his death.
De La Fuente has been honored at the American Police Hall of Fame & Museum in Florida, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington D.C., the Texas Peace Officers Memorial in Austin and most recently during the 100 Club of San Antonio’s Heroes Luncheon.
During that luncheon, officials revealed that of the 15 area fallen first responders in recent years, 10 died of COVID-19 complications.
County denies De La Fuente contracted COVID-19 at work
County officials, in multiple filings tied to the death benefits case, state that no evidence exists that De La Fuente contracted the deadly virus while working for the county and that there is no evidence he sustained an occupational disease.
Pezina De La Fuente said at the time of her husband’s death, the couple had been closely following public health guidelines suggesting that people socially distance from one another and were abiding by the city’s stay at home order.
The county also disputes that Pezina De La Fuente was her husband’s spouse at the time of his death. The couple, however, lived together more than 14 years and according to court records, carried themselves as husband and wife and presented to others that they were married. Multiple photos shared by Pezina De La Fuente with the Defenders show De La Fuente wearing a wedding ring and celebrating his anniversary on various trips with his wife.
The Texas Family Code, as well as Texas courts, have long held that a marriage can be proven in an official proceeding if a couple has agreed to be married and has lived together in the state as husband and wife.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me at all. You’re going to honor somebody and thank them for their service and thank them for working in a horrible time. Tim worked in actual Covid-positive units,” said Lt. Jeremy Payne, outgoing president of the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Bexar County.
“If he had been shot in the line of duty, there would be no question about this,” said Payne. “You asked him to come in, you asked him to serve. He did his job and he paid for that with his life. And for you to come back and try to hurt his family by taking away financial benefits, that the state has already approved, is just horrific.”
Senate Bill 22, which was signed into law by Texas Governor Greg Abbott in June 2021 after garnering strong bipartisan support makes COVID-19 a presumptive disease for certain first responders, including detention officers.
“Regardless of whether you’re exposed by a family member or exposed at work, it just assumes the fact that we put you in a position to have to be out there. And it presumes you did get COVID while at work,” said Payne.
The new law retroactively applies to first responder deaths dating back to March 13, 2020, and also allows families of first responders to request in writing that their benefit claims be reprocessed if they were previously denied. Insurance carriers are required to apply changes to the law when reprocessing the claims.
County officials, in legal filings, contend that Pezina De La Fuente failed to request in writing that her claim be reprocessed after SB 22 went into effect.
Her attorney stated that he was orally requesting that the claim to be reprocessed during a contested care hearing in late September, according to Pezina De La Fuente.
Pezina received $1,922 for cremation costs as well as a year of backpay of death benefits from the county after the administrative judge’s initial ruling in her favor in May 2021.
The benefits were temporarily halted last year, while the county appealed the administrative judge’s ruling, but were reinstated after the judge’s second ruling in the case and remain in place while the case sits in district court.
Pezina De La Fuente’s attorneys have asked for a jury trial.
If she loses, Pezina De La Fuente would not have to pay back the death benefits she’s received so far but would lose those benefits moving forward. However, she would have to pay back her husband’s cremation expenses.
She previously received one-time lump sum payments from both the federal Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program and state-level Employee Retirement System after each group verified her eligibility.
“Listen, I don’t want a handout. I’ve worked three jobs at times during my career. My husband gave almost 28 years to the citizens of Bexar County. He worked there more than half his life. His loyalty and dedication was unwavering,” said Pezina De La Fuente.
Payne said the court case could have a statewide ripple effect.
“It wouldn’t just hurt the Tim De La Fuente family. It will hurt all first responders,” said Payne.
Court case causing animosity between county, BCSO
A county spokeswoman this month refused to comment on the case and stated that it was being handled by its Austin-based workers’ compensation law firm. A person who answered the phone at the firm said he could not comment on pending litigation.
Tuesday afternoon, several hours after this story was published and a full two weeks after the Defenders reached out regarding the suit, Bexar County spokeswoman Monica Ramos released the following statement:
“Our condolences go out to the De La Fuente family on the loss of Deputy De La Fuente. While we disagree with the general characterization of this matter, we are working to ensure that Bexar County-funded benefits are paid out appropriately and in accordance with relevant law. Bexar County has and continues to pay survivor benefits to the family during the pendency of this administrative matter and will follow the order of the court considering the issues in this case, once issued. We have no further comment at this time.”
Sheriff Salazar, who has escorted Pezina De La Fuente at multiple ceremonies honoring her husband, declined to comment due to the pending litigation.
But internal emails obtained by the Defenders through a public records request shed light on the acrimony the legal case is causing between the county and BCSO.
BCSO’s human resources supervisor reached out to the county’s workers’ compensation risk claims specialist via email May 5 to ask if the county was suing the widow of De La Fuente.
The claims specialist, Pearl Camarillo Jauregui, responded that the question was incorrect.
“The County is defending its position(s) and does not comment on active litigation nor should anyone else at the County,” Camarillo Jauregui wrote on May 6.
She then wrote that any other questions should be referred to the county’s attorney handling the case or to one of the two attorneys representing De La Fuente’s widow.
Camarillo Jauregui’s email included a misspelling of Pezina De La Fuente’s name and the false claim that the case was being handled confidentially.
Bexar County’s decision to file suit in state district court made dozens of pages of records from the matter, including the administrative judge’s past rulings on the case, public record.
Camarillo Jauregui then asked who was requesting information about the case.
Sheriff Salazar on May 9 sent the following reply via email to Camarillo Jauregui:
Ms. Jauregui, To be clear, I am the one requesting the information--and I feel I’m entitled to. Quite frankly, I’m doing so because I was asked by a member of the media AND by the widow of Deputy Timothy De La Fuente if I was behind any actions being filed against her. I was asked this as I was in the process of honoring Deputy Timothy De La Fuente at two back-to-back ceremonies to honor fallen first responders. Being that my stance is that Timothy’s death is indeed a line of duty death, I was caught completely off-guard by the questions. I was honored to escort his widow, Pauline, to both events at her invitation and I find it completely reprehensible that anyone would be filing any sort of action against a grieving law enforcement widow. I did not comment, nor will I comment on ongoing litigation. I was simply being asked a question and wanted some background as to why I was being asked. If this is the case, I can tell you I strongly disagree with denial of benefits, and I find it insulting to Timothy’s memory if his wife is indeed being sued for pursuing something countless other law enforcement families are rightfully being afforded-all while she is clearly still dealing with the loss of her spouse. I assure you, as a firsthand witness, her emotions are to be expected and they are very real. I’m not clear what “The County’s position” you quote is, but mine and that of my office are that we should stand by one of our fallen heroes and honor him. Although I choose to not comment on it publicly at this point, I DO know what I will testify to if and when subpoenaed to do so. Respectfully, Sheriff Javier Salazar.Email obtained by KSAT 12 Defenders
Pezina De La Fuente said she plans to attend this week’s BCSO fallen deputy memorial at the Bexar County Courthouse.
Her husband had planned to retire from BCSO after reaching 30 years of service. De La Fuente survived riots in the jail and was able to return to duty after recovering from a significant head injury stemming from a 2017 assault by an inmate.