A pension board finds that a police officer is entitled to a line-of-duty disability pension. Is the board’s finding conclusive on the issue of whether the officer suffered a “catastrophic injury” so as to be entitled to health care premiums under the Public Safety Employee Benefits Act? The Illinois Supreme Court debated that question in the closing days of its May term, hearing oral arguments in The Village of Vernon Hills v. Heelan. Our detailed summary of the facts and lower court holdings in Vernon Hills is here.
Vernon Hills began when the defendant officer was injured in the line of duty in December 2009. In August 2011, the Board of Trustees of the Police Pension Fund held that the officer qualified for a line-of-duty disability pension. A month later, the village filed a complaint seeking a declaratory judgment that the officer was not entitled to health insurance benefits under the Public Safety Employees Act on the grounds that the officer had not suffered a catastrophic injury in response to what he reasonably believed to be an emergency.
The village acknowledged the Supreme Court’s holding in Krohe v. City of Bloomington that a catastrophic injury under the Act was the same thing as an injury sufficient to result in a line-of-duty pension, but argued that Krohe was factually distinguishable and wrongly decided. The court granted the officer’s motion in limine to bar any testimony on the issue of whether he had suffered a catastrophic injury under the Act, relying upon Krohe. At the conclusion of a bench trial, the court granted a directed finding against the village and found for the officer on his counterclaim. The Appellate Court affirmed, agreeing that Krohe controlled.
Counsel for the village began the argument, arguing that the case calls upon the court to decide whether a municipality should have a voice in determining whether a public safety official has suffered a catastrophic injury. Justice Freeman asked whether the village had sought leave to intervene at the Pension Board. Counsel conceded that the village could have requested intervention, but the Second District’s decision in Richter v. Village of Oak Brook hadn’t been decided at that point. Accordingly, at the time of the board hearing, no Appellate Court had ever held that a municipality could be bound by a decision of the pension board to which it wasn’t a party. Further, counsel said, intervention wasn’t a right – the matter was up to the sole discretion of the pension board. Justice Burke pointed out that the village was at the hearing. Counsel explained that there is only one room big enough for the hearing in the village, and that the Village had attended the hearing to observe. Justice Thomas asked whether the Court could get where the Village wants to go without overruling Krohe. Counsel responded that indeed the Court could; the Village was asking the Court to look at the definition of “catastrophic” injury. Justice Thomas pointed out that the Court has said that when the highest court has construed the statute, the Court’s holding is as much a part of the statute as if it were written in the text. Given that, isn’t Krohe a part of the statute which the legislature hasn’t disturbed? Counsel responded that Krohe was distinguishable, given that the legislature was referring to a singular injury. Justice Thomas suggested that the defendant wanted to relitigate the line-of-duty aspect of the case. There wasn’t any question that the plaintiff had suffered a line of duty disability, was there? Counsel agreed that there was not. Justice Thomas asked what would be litigated in a second action, since the defendant wasn’t questioning that the officer’s injury was in the line of duty. Counsel responded that the remand would address whether the plaintiff’s surgery was required by a job-related injury, or was the result of some preexisting or unrelated condition. Justice Thomas suggested again that either the Court would have to overrule Krohe, or find that the plaintiff’s injury wasn’t in the line of duty – what else was there? Counsel answered that the Court could distinguish Krohe because in that case, there was no dispute as to the nature or extent of the injury. Justice Burke suggested that she had a problem with that – the City was present at the hearing, and if there was a problem with the evidence, it could have been dealt with there. So how was that not a waiver? Counsel again pointed out that Richter hadn’t been decided when the board hearing occurred. Justice Burke asked whether the Village had ever intervened in a pension board matter. Counsel answered no. The First and Second Districts have gone in very different ways on this issue – the Second expanding Krohe while the First has held that collateral estoppel can’t apply. Justice Thomas pointed out that the Court hasn’t said in Krohe that catastrophic injury is synonymous with the type of injury which might qualify somebody for a line of duty disability. Rather, the Court said it was synonymous with receiving a line of duty disability. So if the case was remanded, wouldn’t the second hearing be an immediate motion for summary judgment finding that the plaintiff had received a line of duty disability? Counsel answered that Krohe said that the term catastrophic injury is synonymous with the line of duty disability. Justice Thomas asked whether the Pension Board’s decision resulted in a line of duty disability pension. Counsel answered that one was awarded on a less than complete record. The Chief Justice asked whether counsel was suggesting that there were persons who were not catastrophically injured who were nevertheless entitled to a line of duty pension. Counsel answered that there are people who have received a line of duty pension based on less than the most severe injuries. Given the Second District’s line of authority, there are different standards for officers performing the same job. But that issue shouldn’t depend on where the officer lives. Justice Kilbride asked whether the rules of the Pension Board permit questions from Board members. Counsel answered that they did, and there were a handful of questions in the plaintiff’s hearing. Justice Kilbride pointed out that the Village had two appointees on the Board – did they ask any questions? Counsel responded that perhaps one question had come from a village appointee, but the rest had been from police officer appointees. Justice Kilbride asked what the final vote was, and counsel conceded that it was unanimous.
Counsel for the disabled police officer argued next. He told the Court that there was one dissent from the Board’s decision – the president, who is not a village appointee. Justice Freeman asked whether making a distinction in the operative rules between local government employees governed by the Pension Board and those who are not created an absurd result. Counsel said no, and suggested that the Village’s position amounted to asking the Court to take over a legislative function. The legislature had not provided a single, unified system to govern all employees. The legislature has amended the relevant statutes since Krohe in 2003. The same amici had appeared in Vernon Hills that had participated in earlier challenges to the Krohe rule. But counsel suggested that if parties don’t like the rule, their remedy is with the legislature, not the court. Chief Justice Garman asked whether it was true that the village had no chance to litigate, but counsel answered that was not so. The Village was present at the hearing, and the court reporter noted the presence of the Village administrator and Village attorney. Counsel for the officer said that he had noted in his argument to the pension board that the Village hadn’t sought leave to intervene. Justice Theis asked whether the issue of intervention was part of the case. Counsel answered that intervention by the employer makes for a much longer and more difficult case, but that’s not the Court’s concern. The Village had waived their opportunity to intervene, but certainly the Court could encourage similarly situated employers to do so in the future. Counsel noted that the Village claimed to have never had the opportunity to make its points regarding disability, but pointed out that the Village had paid the officer benefits under the Public Employees Disability Act for a year.
Even after the Board’s decision, the Village could have appeared within thirty days to seek rehearing and intervention, counsel suggested. The Village had filed a declaratory judgment action within the same thirty-five days they had to seek administrative review of the Board’s decision. The Village could have sought intervention, reconsideration or administrative review. They chose this route instead. Justice Karmeier asked whether the Village could have sought administrative review if they’d sought leave to intervene and been denied. Counsel said yes. Counsel closed by arguing that the hearing had involved questioning of the police officer and the doctor, and review of 400-plus pages of exhibits. Ultimately, the Village’s position was just one more attack on Krohe, counsel argued. The Village was seeking permission to participate in the process, but could have done so long ago.
Counsel for the village concluded with rebuttal, arguing that the appellee’s brief was directed for the most part to how extensive a remand hearing would be. But expense is never a justification for skirting due process. Counsel argued that the Village wasn’t asking for the Court to circumvent the legislature by crafting a uniform system; all that was necessary was for the Court to rule that a public employer could not be bound by a pension board decision to which it wasn’t a party. Reversal would merely put all police officers and municipal entities on an equal footing, according to counsel. The issue wasn’t whether municipalities approved of Krohe, counsel argued; the problem was what the Appellate Court had done with Krohe. According to counsel, the Second District has taken Krohe two or three steps beyond what anyone intended. Counsel for the appellee claimed that the Village should have intervened in the proceeding, but there had been only three such proceedings in the past. The Village was permitted to intervene in one, but in another, the pension board denied intervention. Counsel argued that as long as pension boards have discretion to either grant or deny intervention, the only certain avenue available to protect the Village’s due process rights was a declaratory judgment action. If the Appellate Court’s decision was not reversed, counsel argued, the Village would be forced to move for leave to intervene in each and every pension board hearing, and then try to obtain administrative review – but it was unclear whether the village’s financial interest was sufficient to give it standing to seek administrative review. Counsel argued that the circuit court was a better forum for the complex issues involved than a pension board. Nor were the Village’s PEDA payments to the officer an admission of liability, counsel said. Any public employee injured at work is eligible for those benefits.
We expect Village of Vernon Hills to be decided in three to five months.