by Shawn P. Flaherty (Winter 2017)

In a decision, much-anticipated by the fire service community, the Illinois Supreme Court recently ruled that a firefighter who was granted an occupation disease disability pension from his firefighter’s pension fund was statutorily disqualified from receiving paid health insurance premium benefits under the Public Safety Employee Benefits Act (PSEBA), 820 ILCS 320/10(a). In Bremer v. City of Rockford, 2016 IL 119889 (December 30, 2016), the state’s top court considered an appeal from the Illinois Appellate Court for the Second District on the issue of whether employees who apply for and are granted occupational disease disability pensions pursuant to Section 4-110.1 of the Illinois Pension Code are eligible to be considered for these highly valuable health insurance benefits.

Plaintiff William Bremer was employed as a full-time firefighter with the City of Rockford and a member of the City of Rockford Firefighters’ Pension Fund. Mr. Bremer suffered from cardiomyopathy, which caused him to file for an occupational disease pension from the pension fund in 2004. After a hearing, the pension board awarded Bremer an occupational disease disability pension, and Bremer began receiving benefits in January 2005. Three years later, Bremer applied to the City for health insurance benefits pursuant to Section 10 of PSEBA, relying upon his award of an occupational disease disability pension as support for his application. The City denied his application for PSEBA benefits and a lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Winnebago County soon followed.

The circuit court granted summary judgment to Bremer on his count seeking a declaratory judgment on the issue of whether the City was required to pay future health insurance benefits and reimburse past health insurance benefits under PSEBA. The court determined that PSEBA required the City to continue payment of the health insurance benefits and it also directed the City to reimburse Bremer for past premiums.

The matter was timely appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court for the Second District, and this reviewing court agreed that occupational disease disability pensions could constitute “catastrophic injuries” that qualify impacted public safety employees for the PSEBA medical benefits. However, the appellate court found that a question of material fact still existed on the second part of the PSEBA test; that is, whether the plaintiff’s injury resulted from his response to what was reasonably believed to be an emergency. 2015 IL App (2d) 130920, ¶45. Justice Robert McLaren filed a strong dissent to this opinion.

The Illinois Supreme Court then reversed the lower courts ruling and unanimously decided that the legislature did not intend for PSEBA to be applied to occupational disease disability pensions granted under Section 4-110.1 of the Illinois Pension Code, but applied only to line-of-duty disability pensions awarded under Section 4-110 of the Code. The court cited three of its previous decisions for the proposition that the award of a line-of-duty disability pension constitutes a “catastrophic injury” for the purposes of the first of two elements necessary for an applicant to be awarded PSEBA health insurance benefits. The court found that the phrase “catastrophic injury” was a “term of art that has been defined specifically based on the legislative history and debates” when PSEBA was enacted in 1997. Six of the seven justices agreed that a line-of-duty disability pension must be granted to a firefighter or police officer to be eligible for PSEBA benefits, and that this valuable benefit was not meant to be available to disability pensions paid under other sections of the Pension Code.

The court did recognize that there may be legitimate public policy reasons to extend these type of benefits to firefighters and police officers who suffer from occupational diseases. Nevertheless, the court reasoned that this was not a decision for the judicial branch; rather, it was one that must come from the legislative branch of state government.

The impact of the Bremer decision is that it is now abundantly clear that firefighters and police officers who are granted occupational disease disability pensions will no longer be eligible for PSEBA benefits. This was a belief long held by most in the fire service, but the Illinois Supreme Court has had the last word on the subject. Legislative changes may follow, but the current PSEBA law does not provide for these benefits for this category of disabled members.

Questions remain. It seems predictable that the next case to be litigated in this area of law is whether a public safety employee who suffers from lung disease, heart disease or cancer who is granted a line-of-duty disability pension should be treated as suffering from a “catastrophic injury” pursuant to Section 10(a) of PSEBA. It also remains difficult for this group of employees to demonstrate that they meet the second requirement of PSEBA: that their illness resulted from a “response” to what was reasonably believed to be an emergency. Experience has shown that this second part of the test is a difficult hurdle to overcome for disabled members who suffer from long-term, progressive diseases that are in the nature of an occupational disease.

Municipalities, fire protection districts, and pension boards need to be aware of these dynamics when they are considering applications for either pension or PSEBA benefits.