In 2003, the Illinois Supreme Court held that anyone who qualified for a line-of-duty pension under section 4-110 of the Illinois Pension Code qualified as having a “catastrophic injury” within the meaning of Section 10(a) of the Public Safety Employee Benefits Act, thus triggering a right to have their health insurance premiums paid. But does an injury sufficient to trigger an occupational disease disability pension under section 4-110.1 of the Pension Code also trigger Section 10(a) as a “catastrophic injury”? In an opinion by Justice Thomas, the Illinois Supreme Court held in Bremer v. City of Rockford that the answer was “no.” Our detailed report on the underlying facts and lower court rulings in Bremer is here. Our report on the oral argument is here.
Bremer began in 2004, when the plaintiff, who had served as a firefighter for the City of Rockford for twenty-eight years, was granted an occupational disease pension by the City of Rockford Firefighters’ Pension Board. The Board found that the plaintiff was suffering from cardiomyopathy as a result of his work as a firefighter. The City paid health insurance premiums for the plaintiff and his wife until 2008, as required by city ordinance. When the City informed the plaintiff that it would be stopping the benefits, he applied for continuing health insurance benefits under Section 10. The Board held that he had not suffered a catastrophic injury, and therefore denied his application.
Plaintiff filed a two-count complaint, seeking a declaratory judgment on the meaning of the term “catastrophic injury” in Section 10, as well as an award of attorney fees and costs under the Wage Actions Act. The Circuit Court granted plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment on Count 1, ordering the plaintiff’s health insurance benefits be reinstated, but granted the defendant summary judgment on Count 2, holding that plaintiff’s benefits did not constitute wages within the meaning of the Wage Actions Act. The court granted plaintiff leave to add a third count to his complaint seeking reimbursement for health insurance premiums the plaintiff had paid, as well as certain medical expenses incurred during the period when plaintiff’s health insurance was not in effect. The Court dismissed the claim for reimbursement of premiums, but did enter judgment for plaintiff on a small portion of the medical expenses.
The Appellate Court reversed with respect to Count 1, holding that although the plaintiff’s injury arguably satisfied the requirement of “catastrophic injury,” there was a triable dispute of fact as to the second prong of the test: whether plaintiff had been injured responding to what he reasonably believed to be an emergency. The Court affirmed dismissal of the claim under the Wage Actions Act, and held that the plaintiff’s claim for unpaid premiums and medical expenses was not yet ripe for adjudication. Justice McLaren dissented.
The Supreme Court affirmed in part and vacated in part. The Court began its analysis with the central issue: did a firefighter who qualified for an occupational disease pension per se satisfy the Section 10 test of having a “catastrophic injury”? Reviewing the Court’s previous decisions involving Section 10, the Court noted that it had defined “catastrophic injury” by reference to the legislative history and debates as an injury resulting in an award of a line-of-duty pension. Plaintiff argued that the requirements for an occupational disease pension were “essentially the same” as those for a line-of-duty pension, but the majority found that that was simply not so. A line-of-duty pension results when a condition or injury results from an identifiable act or acts of duty, without any limitation requiring a minimum time in service. On the other hand, the occupational disease pension requires that the officer have been employed in his or her job for a minimum number of years. Given that the General Assembly has set forth different eligibility requirements for the two pensions, it cannot be that an occupational disease pension automatically triggers the Section 10(a) benefit as a catastrophic injury. Since the plaintiff had conceded that there were no factual disputes involved in his primary claim for health premium benefits, the Court affirmed the Appellate Court and entered judgment for the defendant on that claim. Because plaintiff’s claims under the Wage Actions Act and his third claim for unpaid premiums and medical expenses were contingent on his prevailing on the basic claim under Section 10, the Court affirmed the Appellate Court on the Wage Actions Act count, and entered summary judgment for the defendant on the remaining count.
Justice Kilbride dissented in part, arguing that although the mere awarding of an occupational disease pension did not by definition satisfy the “catastrophic injury” test, that didn’t mean that plaintiff couldn’t have proven that he also would have qualified for a line-of-duty pension. Justice Kilbride thus concluded that all three claims should have been remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.