by Vladimir Shuliga, Jr. (Winter 2016)

Since the Illinois Supreme Court’s Krohe v. City of Bloomington opinion in 2003, municipalities and fire protection districts have bemoaned the expansive definition that the court assigned to the term “catastrophic injury” in the Public Safety Employee Benefit Act (“PSEBA”). PSEBA provides that if a firefighter or police officer is catastrophically injured or killed while responding to what is reasonably believed to be an emergency, then the municipality or fire district must provide and pay for the employee’s health insurance until he or she becomes Medicare eligible. The employer must also provide the benefit to the employee’s dependents.
 
With the ever-increasing cost of health insurance, PSEBA creates a very generous benefit. By the plain language of the statute, the benefit appears reasonable because the employee must suffer a “catastrophic” injury or die in order to qualify for it. Unfortunately, the statutory language in PSEBA never defines “catastrophic injury.” That task was left to the courts. The Illinois Supreme Court first addressed this definition in the Krohe case and decided that a catastrophic injury was any injury that resulted in a line-of-duty disability pension.

Public safety employers bemoaned the decision noting that employees are often granted those disability pensions for injuries that prevent individuals from employment as public safety officers but may not necessarily prevent them from holding other jobs. For instance, a back injury can disable a firefighter from ever returning to firefighting duties. However, there are various other occupations that the individual could find employment in. Advocates for a narrow definition of “catastrophic injury” argued that the benefit was intended for those individuals who were hurt so severely that they could not hold gainful employment in or out of public safety service.
 
The Village of Vernon Hills advanced this same argument in Village of Vernon Hills v. Heelan, 2015 IL 118170. Officer Heelan slipped on ice while responding to an emergency and injured his hips. He eventually had both hips replaced and was granted a line-of-duty disability pension. The Village did not intervene or otherwise participate in the pension hearing. Afterwards, the Village filed a lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment that the Village was not required to provide Heelan with PSEBA benefits. The Village did not dispute that Heelan was injured in response to what was reasonably believed to be an emergency, but instead the Village argued that Heelan had not suffered a catastrophic injury.
 
The Village acknowledged that the Krohe decision held that a line-of-duty disability pension was synonymous with a catastrophic injury for PSEBA purposes; however, the Village argued that this case was factually different from Krohe. The Village sought to depose the doctors who provided independent medical examinations of Heelan in the pension matter. The court did not allow the Village to do so. Heelan, on the other hand, testified that he had been granted a line-of-duty disability pension by the pension fund. The trial court ruled that Heelan was catastrophically injured because he had been granted a line-of-duty disability pension – a ruling that was in lock-step with the Krohe decision.

The Village’s appeal eventually reached the Illinois Supreme Court. At the Supreme Court, the Village advanced several arguments. The Village reiterated that the facts of this case were different from those in Krohe. Additionally, the Village argued that its procedural due process rights were violated because it was not allowed to conduct discovery on the issue of Heelan’s injury.
 
The court rejected all of the Village’s arguments. The court was emphatic that once an applicant has received a line-of-duty disability pension, the facts are irrelevant to determining whether an applicant for PSEBA benefits is catastrophically injured. The court had no interest in revisiting its prior decision in Krohe. Instead, the court applied Krohe and reaffirmed that “the pension board’s award [of a line-of-duty disability pension] establishes as a matter of law that the public safety employee suffered a catastrophic injury” (emphasis in original). Therefore, it is unnecessary to engage in any discovery regarding the applicant’s injury.
 
The court reminded the Village that Krohe was decided in 2003. The legislature has had over twelve years to amend PSEBA if the Krohe court’s decision was contrary to the legislative intent. Because the legislature has remained silent on the issue, the Court stated that it will continue to follow Krohe. The Court made it clear that it was not going to depart from its precedent simply because the benefits under PSEBA come at a significant cost to municipalities. Those policy arguments should be brought to the legislature.

The court was similarly dismissive of the Village’s procedural due process argument. The Village argued that it suffered prejudice because it was not allowed to conduct discovery on the issue of whether Heelan was catastrophically injured. The court found that there could not have been a procedural due process violation because Heelan was “catastrophically injured” as a matter of law. Because the catastrophic injury was established as a matter of law, any discovery that the Village wanted to conduct was irrelevant. No more information was necessary, so the Village’s due process rights could not have been violated.
 
However, the Village chose not to intervene in the pension hearing. The court noted that there was a procedure available to the Village to address the severity of Heelan’s injury. The Village cannot voluntarily ignore that procedure and then claim that its procedural due process rights were violated. One question that the Court declined to answer was whether the pension board had a legal obligation to grant a municipality’s motion to intervene in a pension hearing. In this case, the Village failed to even attempt to intervene, so the Court decided not to address the issue.

The court’s ruling was not surprising. Every attempt through the courts to diminish or otherwise weaken the Krohe decision has fallen on deaf ears. The Court has made it clear that Krohe is the law of the land: if an employee is granted a line-of-duty disability pension, then he or she has been catastrophically injured for purposes of PSEBA. The court essentially told municipalities to stop bringing lawsuits to challenge the Krohe rationale. Any change to the definition of “catastrophic injury” should be undertaken by the legislature, so all future efforts should be taken to the legislature, not the courts.
 
Fortunately, the court hinted that employers have the pension hearing available to them in order to make a record regarding the extent of an employee’s injury. Unfortunately, the court did not explicitly rule that a pension board was required to let an employer intervene into the pension hearing. The court was clear, however, that voluntarily skipping the pension hearing would waive the employer’s procedural due process arguments. At a minimum, a municipality or fire protection district should attempt to intervene in pension proceedings in order to preserve its right to due process.

Any time a firefighter is injured on the job, a municipality or district should contact its legal counsel and remain in close contact with the pension fund board of trustees to insure that the employer’s rights are protected.