On December 30, 2016, the Illinois Supreme Court made the New Year a little happier for employers dealing with the high costs of PSEBA (Public Safety Employee Benefits Act) benefits. In Bremer v. City of Rockford, the court held that the phrase “catastrophic injury” is not synonymous with a disease resulting in the award of an occupational disease disability pension. This is rather surprising, given that this is the same court that gave us Krohe v. City of Bloomington which defined “catastrophic injury” as being synonymous with a line-of-duty pension under section 4-110 of the Illinois Pension Code. While I have never agreed with the holding in Krohe, I think that Bremer is a step in the right direction.
In Bremer, a firefighter applied for an occupational disease disability pension under section 4-110.1 of the Illinois Pension Code. The City of Rockford’s Firefighters’ Pension Board found that Bremer satisfied the statutory requirements for an occupational disease disability pension. Specifically, the Board found that Bremer established that he was firefighter with five or more years of creditable service who was unable to perform his duties due to heart disease resulting from his service as a firefighter. Further, the Board found that Bremer presented medical evidence that was sufficient to establish that his cardiomyopathy resulted from the performance of his duties as a firefighter.
Bremer applied for PSEBA benefits and the City denied his request. Bremer then filed a petition for declaratory judgment in the circuit court. The circuit court ruled in favor of Bremer, holding that he was entitled to PSEBA benefits. The appellate court upheld the circuit court decision. The main issue before the Illinois Supreme Court was whether or not the award of an occupational disease disability pension establishes a “catastrophic injury” within the meaning of section 10(a) of PSEBA.
In short, the Supreme Court held that sections 4-110 and 4.110.1 of the pension code are different. The Court held that there was nothing in PSEBA’s legislative history that would allow it to expand the definition of a “catastrophic injury” to include disability pensions awarded under other sections of the Pension Code. The Court further held that such an expansion of this definition would be a revision of their own “settled determination” of the legislative intent of the meaning of a “catastrophic injury” in prior cases, specifically Krohe, Nowak v. City of Country Club Hills, and Village of Vernon Hills v. Heelan. What the Court is saying is, we have to follow our own precedents (right, that’s typically how it works), but there may be a problem on the horizon.
The Court noted in closing that, “While there may be legitimate policy reasons for expanding the definition of ‘catastrophic injury,’ any such change must come from the legislature, not this court.” The court seems to be telling those who do not like this decision to go lobby their legislators for a change which would include occupational diseases as a basis for awarding PSEBA benefits. As all Star Wars fans have known since 1977 (and were recently reminded of in Rogue One), the Force is strong. So is the firefighters’ lobby in Illinois. They do not take lightly to any infringement upon what they believe to be their entitlements for pursuing their chosen profession (remember minimum staffing – now a mandatory subject of bargaining for firefighters).
My bold prediction for 2017 is that we have not heard the last of this issue. This is definitely an issue that should be on the radar or municipalities and their lobbyists in the coming year.