The Illinois Supreme Court seemed conflicted during an extremely active oral argument in late January in the high-profile pension case People ex rel. Madigan v. Burge. Burge poses the following issue: can the Attorney General challenge the actions of the Police Pension Board by simply filing suit in the Circuit Court, as opposed to pursuing administrative review in the Appellate Court? Based upon the argument, it appears that whether or not the Court sides with the Attorney General will depend upon whether the Court finds a limiting principle in the Attorney General’s broad claim of standing. Our detailed summary of the facts and lower court holdings in Burge is here. The video of the argument is here.
Burge arises from a notorious case a few years ago. A Chicago police officer was widely believed to have sanctioned and participated in the abuse and torture of arrestees in order to extract confessions. The officer was convicted of two counts of obstruction of justice and one of perjury and sentenced to 54 months in prison.
Section 5-227 of the Pension Code says that pension benefits can’t be paid to anyone "convicted of any felony related to or arising out of or in connection with his service as a policeman." The Board of Trustees of the Retirement Board of the Policemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund held an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the statute barred further pension payments to the imprisoned officer. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Board split 4-4: the four city-appointed trustees voting to terminate, the four trustees elected by the police officer participants in the pension fund voting to continue payments. Without a majority of the Board voting to discontinue, the motion to discontinue payments failed.
Rather than seeking administrative review of the decision, the Attorney General sued the Board, seeking an injunction to halt the payments. The Attorney General cited section 1-115(b) of the Pension Code, arguing that the statute authorized the Attorney General to seek an injunction to halt any practice which violates the Pension Code. The Pension Board and the officer both moved to dismiss, and the Circuit Court granted the motion. The First District, Division Six of the Appellate Court reversed.
Counsel for the officer argued that the Attorney General was using the statute to collaterally attack a decision by the Board which was subject only to administrative review. Counsel argued that the legislature granted original and exclusive jurisdiction to the Board to make all decisions regarding benefits. Police officers are entitled to expect that the Board and their elected representatives make all decisions regarding their pensions, counsel argued. Because the statute limits judicial review, officers should expect that the Board’s decisions are not subject to collateral attack. Justice Burke asked whether Section 1-115(b) was meant to address situations where the Board was acting ultra vires. Counsel said yes. Justice Burke pointed out that the legislature had in fact provided an opportunity to challenge the Board. Counsel argued that such actions were permitted only when the Board’s conduct was outside the Code. Justice Burke asked if that wasn’t what the Attorney General was alleging. Counsel answered no, and that the Attorney General’s claim that the Board’s action violated the Code made no sense. Section 1-115(b) creates a private right of action, counsel argued, but it’s limited to violations of the Code. Justice Kilbride suggested that that was what the Attorney General was alleging. Counsel answered that the issue was what was the purported violation of the Code. Justice Kilbride pointed out that the Attorney General was arguing that the court had concurrent jurisdiction. So why didn’t the AG’s right to file apply here? Counsel once again argued that there was no Code violation for the Attorney General to pursue. Justice Burke suggested that the Board has authority to discontinue pension benefits. Counsel responded that Section 1-115(b) doesn’t give the Circuit Court authority over that issue. Justice Burke asked whether that was what was decided here, whether the pension should be discontinued. Counsel answered that the Board had clearly acted within its authority. Justice Burke asked what the Attorney General alleged as the Code violation. Counsel answered that the Appellate Court had found that the tie vote was the violation because the Court recognized that the Attorney General hadn’t alleged any violation. Justice Thomas asked whether, once the 4-4 vote had occurred, anyone had sought administrative review. Counsel answered that nobody had sought to intervene in the underlying case.
Counsel for the Board followed. The issue was whether the Attorney General has the right to initiate a civil proceeding to challenge a discretionary decision of an administrative agency, counsel argued. The Administrative Review law contains language specifically barring all other kinds of review where the statute applied. Because the Board had the burden of proof, when four members voted against stopping payments, the motion failed. Chief Justice Garman asked whether there was a method to challenge an erroneous interpretation of state law by the Board – the annuitant wouldn’t challenge it, and the Board wouldn’t because they made the mistake. Counsel answered that a void act could be challenged any place at any time. Chief Justice Garman wondered whether the statute applied to a mistaken act. Counsel responded that the Attorney General might not like the Board’s action, the newspapers didn’t like it, but an unpopular decision isn’t necessarily a void one. The Chief Justice wondered whether an act had to be ultra vires to authorize an action by the AG. Counsel responded that what was necessary was something beyond the authority given the Board by the legislature.
Once counsel for the Attorney General took the podium, Justice Thomas began by asking what "act or practice" the Attorney General was challenging. Counsel argued that the AG wasn’t seeking review of the Board’s decision. Justice Thomas wondered whether, if the AG’s action was permissible, either the AG or any individual could challenge any Board decision. Counsel responded that the statute was based on years of experience with ERISA. The critical distinction, counsel argued, was between appellate and original jurisdiction. The Circuit Courts have original jurisdiction to decide the ultimate merits – whether an act or practice violates the Code. Justice Burke asked whether, if the Circuit Court could hear this action, anyone could go directly to the Circuit, bypassing administrative review. Counsel responded that a claimant seeking benefits could not obtain them through Section 1-115(b). Justice Burke asked what violation of the Code the Attorney General was alleging. Counsel responded that the violation was payment of benefits barred by Section 2-227 of the Pension Code. Justice Burke responded that those benefits were paid fifteen years before – the Board merely refused to stop benefits. Counsel answered that once the felony conviction was entered, the language of the statute was clear – further payments were barred. Characterizing the action as one for administrative review was misdirection. Justice Burke asked whether the Pension Board had the authority to decide whether benefits should continue, or the Court did. Counsel responded that the Board and the court had concurrent jurisdiction over the issue. Justice Burke asked whether the Attorney General had the authority to intervene at the Pension Board. Counsel answered yes, but the statute creates a separate vehicle to go straight to the Circuit Court. Justice Burke asked whether the Attorney General had ever gone to court before. Counsel answered no, but this was an important first case for the courts to declare that the Code means what it says. When counsel again argued that the Attorney General had the right to file a separate action, Chief Justice Garman suggested that the Attorney General’s action seemed arguably like waiting till the Board acted, and when the AG didn’t like it, she sought to end-run the process. Counsel answered that this was inherent in concurrent jurisdiction. The Chief Justice asked whether the Attorney General could have intervened at the Board. Counsel answered that the AG didn’t have the resources to monitor thousands of pension cases and intervene at the Board whenever a barred payment was made. The Chief Justice asked whether the Attorney General was acting as the Appellate Court to overrule the Board. Counsel responded that the AG had standing to seek an adjudication by the Court as to whether there had been a violation. Counsel argued that the suit could have been brought the day after the officer’s convictions. Justice Theis asked what the Attorney General’s case would look like – was she asking the Court to decide whether these felonies arose out of the officer’s service? Counsel said yes, and Justice Theis suggested that the AG was relitigating the issue determined by the Board. Counsel responded that the Attorney General’s complaint wasn’t a disagreement with the Board, but rather arguing that paying the pension violated the Code. Justice Burke asked what new evidence would be presented on remand. Counsel answered that the Attorney General wasn’t a party below. The right to intervene and then seek administrative review doesn’t preclude concurrent review. Justice Theis asked whether anyone had standing to seek administrative review of the Board’s 4-4 decision — the Board members who lost? The City? Counsel answered that no one had standing to appeal. The statutory mechanism showed the wisdom of the legislature, counsel argued; there was a non-adversarial process with public money at stake, and nobody available to seek review unless the Attorney General could file a separate action. Justice Theis suggested that at least one case from the Fifth District suggested that the City might have had arguable standing to appeal. Counsel answered that the Attorney General doesn’t agree with the decision cited by Justice Theis, which conflicted with the Supreme Court’s precedent, up to and including Roxana School District. Justice Theis asked whether there was case law saying that members of the Board couldn’t bring administrative review. Counsel answered that he hadn’t seen a situation where a board member had standing to object to a decision of his or her own agency. Chief Justice Garman asked whether the Attorney General could bring an action based on any error of the Board. Counsel responded that he could imagine incorrect decisions that wouldn’t violate the Code.
Counsel for the officer began his rebuttal by arguing that the statutory bar on benefits doesn’t automatically apply after a conviction. The legislature gave exclusive jurisdiction to the Pension Board over that decision, and authorized limited review pursuant to the Administrative Review law. Counsel concluded by arguing that if a payment was the Code violation, either the Attorney General or anyone else could challenge a Board action in court at any time.
Counsel for the Board pointed out that the thirty-five day filing deadline under the Administrative Review law is jurisdictional. In contrast, Section 1-115(b) has no time limit. So if the Attorney General is correct, there could be challenges to administrative actions years after a board decision. Justice Karmeier asked whether the Attorney General could have intervened before the Board. Counsel answered that the Attorney General could have spoken at the Board. Justice Karmeier asked whether that would give the AG standing to appeal, and counsel said yes. Justice Thomas posed a hypothetical – assume that the Attorney General had no right to intervene. If so, who would challenge a Board error in favor of an annuitant? Counsel answered that the Attorney General could challenge the failure to allow intervention. Justice Burke asked whether the appeal would be over denial of intervention, or the merits of the decision not to stop benefits. Counsel answered that the AG could challenge the denial of intervention, and if she prevailed, the Board would make an appropriate ruling. Justice Karmeier suggested that if the Board denied intervention, the Attorney General would have to file a separate action, since the AG would not be a party with standing to seek review. Counsel argued that the Attorney General could challenge denial of intervention. Justice Thomas again asked whether, if there was no intervention possible and the annuitant prevailed, anyone would or could seek review. Counsel answered that an erroneous decision was different from a void decision which could be challenged in the Circuit Court.
We expect Madigan to be decided within four to six months.