Section 10 of the Public Safety Employee Benefits Act provides that when a covered employee sustains a “catastrophic injury” under certain enumerated circumstances, the employee is entitled to have his or her health insurance premiums, as well as those of his or her partner and/or dependent children, paid by the employer. During the May term, the Illinois Supreme Court heard oral argument in Bremer v. City of Rockford, which poses the question of whether the health insurance benefit set forth in Section 10 of the PSEBA is triggered by an occupational disease disability pension. Our detailed summary of the underlying facts and lower court holdings in Bremer is here.
Plaintiff started working for the city as a firefighter in 1976. In May 2004, he filed an application with the Pension Board seeking an occupational disease disability pension pursuant to Section 4-110.1 of the Pension Code (40 ILCS 5/4-110.1), arguing that he suffered from cardiomyopathy as a result of chemicals and toxins he inhaled at the scenes of various fires. The Board granted the pension.
A year later, the City informed the plaintiff that it intended to stop paying his health insurance premiums. The plaintiff applied for health insurance benefits under PSEBA Section 10, but the City denied his claim. The plaintiff sued, seeking a declaratory judgment that he had suffered a catastrophic injury within the meaning of the statute. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, and the trial court granted the plaintiff’s motion on the merits. Subsequently, the court granted the City’s motion for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s second count, which sought an award of attorneys’ fees under the Wage Actions Act. A divided panel of the Appellate Court affirmed the plaintiff’s position that he had suffered a “catastrophic injury,” but remanded for further consideration of whether he satisfied the additional circumstances necessary to trigger the health insurance benefits. The Court affirmed the City’s position that the plaintiff was not entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees under the Wage Actions Act.
Counsel for the firefighter began the argument at the Supreme Court, arguing that the trial court and the Appellate Court had correctly determined that the plaintiff’s award of an occupational disease pension automatically constituted a “catastrophic injury” under the Act. The Appellate Court had erred however, counsel argued, in reversing summary judgment and finding a genuine issue regarding whether the plaintiff’s injury had resulted from responding to what he reasonably believed to be an emergency. Counsel also stated that he would address the attorneys’ fees issue – an important issue to persons in the firefighter’s position, who were disabled and often in difficult economic circumstances. Justice Freeman stated that in Krohe v. City of Bloomington, the Supreme Court had construed the statute based upon the debates. So was it for the Court or the legislature to expand the definition of catastrophic injury? Counsel answered that Krohe hadn’t expanded the definition. Krohe interpreted the language of the statute, but hadn’t considered disability arising from occupational disease. Justice Thomas noted that there are three kinds of pensions under the statute – occupational disease, line of duty, and non-line. The first two are incurred as a result of performing duties – shouldn’t they be treated the same? Counsel answered yes, that the occupational disease standard and the line of duty pension were similar. Justice Thomas asked whether counsel saw Krohe applying. Counsel responded that catastrophic injury is one that arises in the line of duty, so his theory was consistent with Krohe. The problem was that the Krohe court didn’t consider the occupational disease pension. Chief Justice Garman asked counsel to explain how Nowak v. City of Country Club Hills applied. Counsel responded that according to Nowak, the Section 10 health insurance benefit is a post-termination benefit, because there is no entitlement to benefits under disability is determined. But Nowak didn’t involve the question of whether the Wage Act applied, and PSEBA benefits are wages under the Wage Act. Justice Theis asked counsel whether he was arguing that the benefits were deferred compensation. Counsel answered that there is a vested right of payment for life if the employee is catastrophically injured while employed full time. That right accrued when he was injured. Justice Theis asked whether a vested right is the same thing as a wage, and counsel said yes. Section 10 of PSEBA made the health insurance benefit part of the employee’s compensation package. The question, counsel argued, was when the right accrues – and here, the plaintiff’s right to the benefit accrued when he was disabled as a full-time employee. Counsel concluded by briefly addressing the pension issue itself, arguing that the plaintiff had given uncontroverted testimony that he was exposed to chemicals and toxins at fire scenes, every one of which qualified as an emergency. The Appellate Court, however, had held that an emergency couldn’t be proven categorically.
Counsel for the city followed, and argued that it was absurd on its face, in the wake of the Act and Krohe, that the health insurance benefit applied to occupational disease disabilities. Catastrophic injury is synonymous with a line of duty disability under the Pension Code. But the plaintiff, counsel argued, had an occupational disease disability under Section 4-110.1 of the statute, not a catastrophic injury. The two statutes have very different causation standards. Counsel argued that there was no way to affirm the finding of catastrophic injury below without expanding Krohe and rewriting the legislative history. Justice Thomas suggested that both line of duty and occupational disease pensions arose from performing the duties of the job. Counsel answered that it was a different standard – a line-of-duty pension arises from specific acts, while an occupational disease pension arises from general service as a firefighter. Justice Thomas asked for a practical reason to separate out a line-of-duty pension and an occupational disease pension arising from job duties. Counsel said that it’s simply a different section of PSEBA. It’s up to the legislature to define what is covered by the benefit, and if the legislature had intended Section 10 to apply to occupational disease pensions, it would have said so. Moreover, the plaintiff had to prove one of the four circumstances, not just a catastrophic injury. The plaintiff claimed two: that he was injured responding to emergencies, and while investigating crimes. The Chief Justice asked whether an evidentiary hearing was necessary for that issue. Counsel answered that there was no evidence that the firefighter was injured through responding to emergencies – only speculative medical opinion. Counsel suggested that he didn’t know what the plaintiff could possibly produce in an evidentiary hearing that would demonstrate causation.
Counsel for the plaintiff concluded, once again arguing that Krohe looked at line of duty pensions, and nothing more. Chief Justice Garman asked whether, if the Court accepted the plaintiff’s view, any occupational disease pension would automatically trigger Section 10. Counsel answered no, the benefit would be available only if the plaintiff showed that the disease arose from service as a firefighter. The Chief Justice asked if counsel was suggesting that the fact that plaintiff had a serious injury was what mattered, rather than the circumstances in which the injury was sustained. Counsel answered that a serious injury disabling the plaintiff qualified as a catastrophic injury, and the circumstances made it an emergency. Chief Justice Garman asked whether that meant that every firefighter with an occupational disease would qualify under Section 10. Counsel said yes, arguing that there was no need for medical causation testimony linking the disease to causation when the plaintiff’s own testimony is clear and uncontroverted. Defendant had never put the issue of causation in question, plaintiff argued. Justice Thomas asked whether, as things currently stood, the case was going back for fact finding on causation. Counsel answered yes, but the evidence from the plaintiff’s own testimony was that all his fires were emergencies. The Appellate Court, counsel argued, had entirely ignored the plaintiff’s affidavit on the emergency issue.
We expect Bremer to be decided in three to four months.