In a recent opinion, an Illinois Appellate Court upheld the decision of a local pension board awarding a firefighter a line-of-duty disability pension under Section 4-110 of the Illinois Pension Code.
In 2015, a fire captain was assigned to attend a set of training exercises that included intensive physical components (including fighting live fires, climbing stairs, and other exercises while in full firefighting equipment). The captain had a history of heart problems, including an electrical defect and cardiomyopathy. Over the course of the few days of training exercises, the captain became physically weak and started experiencing flu-like symptoms including a fever, an irregular pulse, and difficulty breathing. He was diagnosed with pneumonia, and his treating cardiologist found that his cardiomyopathy had worsened, negatively impacting the rate at which blood was being pumped from his heart to the rest of his body. The captain ended his active firefighter duty the following month and went through a series of medical treatments to address his heart condition.
In mid-2017, the captain submitted an application to the local pension board (Pension Board) seeking either a line-of-duty pension or an occupational disease disability pension. The Pension Board awarded him “interim” nonduty disability benefits, with the determination of his line-of-duty disability pension application pending a full hearing. At the pension hearing, the Pension Board heard from several medical witnesses, none of whom could conclusively testify that the training exercises the captain attended in 2015 had caused his worsened heart condition. However, none of the doctors could rule out the training as contributing to the captain’s health issues either. There was no real dispute, however, as to the finding that the captain was no longer able to work as a firefighter. After considering the evidence presented at the hearing, the Pension Board awarded the captain a line-of-duty disability pension, and the trial court upheld the Pension Board’s decision after it was challenged by the municipality.
On appeal, the municipality argued that (1) the award of interim nonduty disability benefits before the captain’s full hearing terminated the Pension Board’s authority to award the captain a line-of-duty pension; (2) the Pension Board’s decision was contrary to the medical evidence provided at the hearing; and (3) the Pension Board did not apply the proper burden of proof in making its determination.
The Appellate Court disagreed with the municipality and upheld the Pension Board’s award of the disability pension to the captain. First, the Appellate Court found that the interim award of pension benefits was not a “final action” and was awarded in anticipation of a full hearing, which is not an uncommon practice in Illinois pension disputes and did not strip the Board of its authority to award the captain’s full pension benefits. Second, the Court rejected the municipality’s argument that the Pension Board’s decision was contrary to the evidence presented at the hearing. Finally, the Court determined it would not reverse the pension award on the grounds that the Board allegedly misapplied the “preponderance of the evidence” standard of proof.
Post Authored by Erin Monforti & Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink