by Ericka J. Thomas (Winter 2018)

Over the last thirty years, Illinois courts have spent a significant amount of time defining the phrase “act of duty” as used in Article 3 of the Illinois Pension Code. Whether a police officer was performing an “act of duty” when he or she was injured will determine whether the officer is awarded line of duty or non-duty disability pension benefits.

In the recent case of Martin v. Board of Trustees of the Police Pension Fund of the Village of Shiloh, 2017 IL App (5th) 160344, the Fifth District Appellate Court clarified that the analysis should focus on the capacity in which the officer is acting at the time of injury and not the precise mechanism of injury.

The officer in Martin was returning to the police department from the local courthouse after performing a variety of activities, including filing traffic citations and obtaining subpoenas for an ongoing investigation. While stopped at a stoplight in a squad car, the officer was rear-ended by another vehicle and sustained cervical spine injuries that became permanently disabling. The officer applied for line of duty disability pension benefits. The Village was granted leave to intervene in the pension proceedings.

After determining that the officer was not performing an “act of duty,” the Board concluded that the officer was entitled only to non-duty disability pension benefits. The Board commented that the officer was not performing an “act of duty” involving “special risk” because he had completed his business at the courthouse and was simply returning to the police department as a passenger in a squad car at the time he was struck; such an accident is experienced by regular citizens every day.

The officer then filed a complaint requesting administrative review. The trial court reversed the Board’s decision and awarded the officer line of duty disability pension benefits.

On appeal, the Board argued that its decision was correct and that the officer was not performing an “act of duty,” as defined in the Illinois Pension Code. Note that the court relied on the definition of “act of duty” found in Article 5 of the Illinois Pension Code, which governs Chicago police pensions.

The Fifth District affirmed the reversal of the Board’s decision and cited to the Illinois Supreme Court case of Johnson v. Retirement Board, 114 Ill.2d 518 (1986), and its progeny as the basis for its decision. The Johnson case involved a police officer who was crossing an intersection to assist a citizen when he slipped and permanently injured himself. The Illinois Supreme Court concluded that the officer’s actions in Johnson were an “act of duty” because the officer was discharging his sworn duties by responding to a citizen’s call.

As in Johnson, the Fifth District noted that the officer had been performing duties at the courthouse that are not delegated to members of the general public and, because he was on duty and in a squad car at the time of the accident, he was subject to attend to any other police calls and responsibilities that might arise. The court continued that a police officer in a squad car “…must have their attention and energies directed towards being prepared to confront any eventuality.” The court concluded that the relevant inquiry is the capacity in which the officer was acting and not the precise way the officer was injured.

Although the Martin case reaffirms the Johnson rule of law, the court emphasized that very subtle factual differences could have resulted in a different outcome. As with all pension proceedings, it is important for pension boards to consult with their counsel to help navigate this complicated legal area.