Argument Report: Illinois Supreme Court Debates Chicago Firefighters' Pensions

Although Kanerva v. Weems was the marquee case on public pensions for the September term of the Illinois Supreme Court, it wasn't the only such case on the docket. But if the oral argument is any indication, the retirees in Hooker v. Retirement Fund of the Firemen's Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago seem poised to prevail, unlike the plaintiffs in Kanerva. Hooker poses a simple question: in a defined benefit pension plan for Chicago firefighters' survivors, is the survivor's pension set for all time according to the salary the firefighter was receiving at the time of his or her death?

Hooker involves two decedents: one died in 1998, the other two years later. Both decedents' widows were awarded the widow's minimum annuity. Both women filed complaints and won judgments awarding line of duty benefits. In 2004, the General Assembly amended the Pension Act to require an award of Duty Availability Pay (DAP) for some pension and annuity calculations. Both widows amended their administrative complaints, arguing that they should have been awarded DAP in the calculation of their pensions - even though neither firefighter had ever received DAP in his salary. Plaintiffs sought leave to bring the DAP claim as a class action.

On remand after the line-of-duty issues had been settled, the Board declined to include DAP in its pension calculation for either survivor. The Circuit Court granted the Board summary judgment on administrative review, refusing to certify a class. The Appellate Court reversed the Circuit Court, holding that under Section 6-140 of the Pension Code, 40 ILCS 5/6-140(a), the amount of a widow's annuity depends on the current annual salary attached to the decedent's position, whether or not the firefighter ever actually received that salary. Accordingly, the Board was required to include DAP in the pension calculation. The Appellate Court reversed the denial of the motion to certify a class as well.

The Supreme Court seemed openly skeptical of the Board's position on appeal. Counsel for the Board began, arguing that the case involved a straightforward issue of statutory interpretation. The Board interpreted the plain language of the 2004 legislative amendments to the code to impose two mandatory requirements for enhanced annuity payments for DAP. First, the husband must have actually received DAP. Second, the corresponding employee contribution must have been paid to the Fund. The decedents in Hooker neither earned nor made contributions on DAP. Justice Thomas asked whether, if the Court ruled for the widows, the Court would then contribute the DAP amounts. Counsel responded that the contributions were actually due from the annuitants, not the City. Further, the City believed that its own contribution obligations were capped by the statute. Justice Thomas asked whether inclusion of DAP benefits had ever been discussed in negotiating the collective bargaining agreement. Counsel responded that all parties had known that DAP was not pensionable. Justice Theis asked whether DAP was pensionable for a firefighter today who received it in his or her salary. Counsel said it was. Justice Theis pointed out that counsel had not addressed Kozak v. Retirement Board of Firemen’s Annuity & Benefit Fund, 95 Ill. 2d 211 (1983). Thirty years ago, Justice Theis said, the Court had held that "current annual salary" in Section 6140 meant the salary of a currently employed firefighter, not the salary at the time of death. At that time, the Court held that the widow's annuity was not tied to the firefighter's salary at the time of death. Counsel responded that the Kozak court had been clear that permitting unfunded benefits was anathema to a defined benefit plan. Justice Theis asked counsel whether he was advocating the overruling of Kozak. Counsel answered that Kozak was law, and that was why the distinction between DAP and salary was so critical. Justice Theis asked why the statute said any references to salary shall be deemed to include DAP - surely that language seems to indicate that the legislature was talking about Section 6140. Counsel argued that the legislative intent was that DAP could now be included to exempt rank employees as pensionable, and that the legislature did not intend to exempt Section 6140 widows from the requirement that any DAP for which the employee contribution was not paid should not be included in the pension calculation. Justice Theis suggested that the statutory language referred to survivors "caught in the middle" when DAP became pensionable after a ten-year period when survivors were receiving DAP pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement, but it wasn't pensionable. Counsel argued that Justice Theis interpreted the statute too narrowly, disregarding subsection (i). Justice Thomas asked about the clause talking about the current annual salary attached to the position to which the fireman was certified at the time of his death - was that of any import? Counsel responded that the language simply set the salary schedule. If survivors are getting benefits, they must be paid for - otherwise, the Fund will go broke. Justice Theis suggested that Kozak had rejected many of the same arguments thirty years ago. Justice Burke asked counsel how he would explain the language "received by the fireman" in the statute. Counsel answered that survivors' benefits are derivative of the fireman - the firefighter must receive the DAP pay in order for it to be included. Justice Freeman asked whether the decision regarding class certification had been preserved for review. Counsel answered that it was not before the court, with the exception that if the two putative class representatives weren't entitled to the benefits, they certainly weren't adequate class representatives.

The Court had far fewer questions for counsel for the claimants. Justice Thomas asked whether the claimants' argument was, at least in part, that the contributions which had not been made should have been made? Counsel responded that in fact, the Board had asked the City to start paying this year. Justice Thomas pointed out that the City took the position that its liability is capped. Counsel agreed, but pointed out that the issue had never been extensively litigated. Justice Thomas asked what counsel's response was to the argument that unfunded benefits equal insolvency. Counsel responded that the Fund certainly did need more money, and that various entities were seeking ways to solve the problem. Counsel concluded by briefly addressing his cross-appeal regarding abatement upon the death of one of the claimants. Justice Theis pointed out that the claimants already had the same issue involved in the cross-appeal pending in the First District Appellate Court.

In rebuttal, counsel for the Board again addressed the potential conflict with Kozak. Counsel argued that surely it wasn't that law that Section 6140 survivors who got the enhanced pension would not be required to make contributions, but others must. Justice Theis pointed out that counsel made an argument that DAP was not really a pension; it was in the nature of workers comp. Counsel responded that there was no support for that; it wasn't a distinction that made a difference. Justice Theis pointed out that one was taxable, one was not. Counsel responded that he didn't believe the two were treated differently. Counsel concluded by urging the court to reject the cross-appeal.

We expect Hooker to be decided within two to four months.

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