As the alarm gets louder about poorly funded governmental pension programs and the drain on the state’s economy, the media focuses greater attention on public employees who receive disability benefits. Sometimes applicants fight hard for a disability pension. Take the case of Howe v. Retirement Fund of the Firemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago.
Plaintiff was hired in 1977 as a paramedic for Chicago Fire Department (“CFD”). Through the years he was promoted until he eventually achieved the position of deputy district chief of employee relations. Although that job did not include paramedic duties, plaintiff occasionally responded to emergency calls. On his way home from work one night, he heard a call on his dispatch radio that a person had fallen off of a CTA platform onto the tracks. Being in the vicinity, the plaintiff went to the scene of the accident, jumping the turnstile to reach the victim, who was already being cared for by others when plaintiff arrived. When he jumped the turnstile, the plaintiff injured his rotator cuff, from which he never fully recovered. Eventually, the plaintiff applied for a duty related disability, claiming that although he was off duty, he “self-dispatched” himself to the call either as a paramedic or as a deputy district chief because, as he claimed, a citizen falling on the CTA tracks is of interest to the media and he was serving a one week rotation at that time as media affairs officer.
Although he never fully recovered, the plaintiff was released to return to work with permanent lifting restrictions which would prevent him from working as a paramedic, although he admitted that he could perform his administrative duties. Plaintiff never asked for an accommodation for his current position, but rather applied for a duty disability pension. The CFD, for its part, never approached the plaintiff to discuss possible reasonable accommodations either.
The Pension Board denied him a duty disability pension, finding that he was not injured in the act of duty, defined as “any act imposed on an active fireman by the ordinances of a city,
or by the rules or regulations of its fire department, or any act performed by an active fireman while on duty, having for its direct purpose the saving of the life or property of another person.” Further, it found that the plaintiff was not disabled under the definition in the Pension Code which defines “disability” as “[a] condition of physical or mental incapacity to perform any assigned duty or duties in the fire service.”
This week, the appellate court affirmed the circuit court’s finding that the Pension Board correctly denied the plaintiff’s application for a duty disability pension. Although the plaintiff argued that performing paramedic duties was always a part of his job, the court found that the plaintiff did not meet his burden of proving he is incapable of performing any assigned duty with the CFD.
Some readers may sympathize with the plaintiff. After all, he was only doing what he thought was his job, and he got hurt. Others may see it the way that the court did – yes he was hurt, but he could still do all of his administrative functions, so a disability pension was unnecessary. The lesson for employees and employers alike in this type of situation is to engage in the interactive process required by the ADA to determine whether a permanent restrictions can be reasonably accommodated. Obviously, if this plaintiff’s job was primarily that of a paramedic, the inquiry would be cut and dried, but since he primarily served in an administrative capacity, it is possible that a reasonable accommodation existed. Had the parties taken that step, the plaintiff might have remained on the job, or the record before the Pension Board and the courts would have definitively stated that plaintiff could still work.
Permanent restrictions don’t always mean the end of a career and aren’t always the road to a disability pension. Employers are never required to accommodate permanent restrictions if they prevent an employee from performing an essential function of their job, but if restrictions involve non-essential functions, employers are wise to determine whether a reasonable accommodation is available.