Does a holding of the Police Pension Board of Trustees that an officer is entitled to a line-of-duty pension preclude a separate challenge to the pensioned officer’s entitlement to paid health insurance? In the closing days of its September term, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously held in Village of Vernon Hills v. Heelan that the answer was “yes.” Our detailed report on the underlying facts and lower court opinions is here. Our report on the oral argument is here.
Vernon Hills began in 2009 when the plaintiff, a twenty-year veteran of the police force, fell on a patch of ice while responding to an emergency call. In an independent medical examination, a physician concluded that the officer’s injury had aggravated preexisting osteoarthritis in his hip. A few months later, the officer underwent a right hip replacement and subsequently returned to light duty. A later examination revealed long-standing osteoarthritis in the opposite hip, which the doctor opined was aggravated by the hip replacement. The officer ultimately underwent a second hip replacement and did not return to work.
The officer applied for a line-of-duty disability pension. The hearing report stated that the Village manager and the attorney for the Village were present at the hearing, but the Village made no attempt to formally intervene. The Pension Board found that the officer was entitled to a line of duty pension.
A few days after the decision, the officer wrote to the Village and asserted that pursuant to Section 10 of the Public Safety Employee Benefit Act, the Board’s finding meant that he was also entitled to have his health insurance premiums paid by the Village.
The Village filed a complaint seeking a declaratory judgment that it was not responsible for the insurance premiums. Although the Supreme Court has held in Krohe v. City of Bloomington that a “catastrophic” injury under Section 10 – the standard for the insurance premium benefit – simply means entitlement to a line-of-duty pension, the Village argued that Krohe was distinguishable. The officer moved in limine to bar any testimony on the question of whether he had suffered a catastrophic injury, based on the Board’s decision. The circuit court granted the motion in limine and at the conclusion of a bench trial held for the officer. A divided panel of the Appellate Court affirmed, rejecting the Village’s claim that it had been denied due process by the order barring any testimony on the issue of catastrophic injury.
The Court held that it had definitively construed the meaning of “catastrophic injury” in Krohe and its progeny, and the legislature’s failure to change the statute indicated that it acquiesced in the Court’s holding. Thus, it was undisputable, given the unchallenged decision of the Pension Board that the officer was entitled to a line-of-duty pension, that the officer had suffered a catastrophic injury under Section 10.
The Court also rejected the Village’s procedural due process claim. The legislature had adopted a statute providing that an officer entitled to a line-of-duty pension was also entitled to the insurance coverage benefit. The enactment of that statute was “all of the process that is due.” The Village was not entitled to litigate an issue which the legislature had definitively decided.