by John E. Motylinski and Chloe Cummings (Winter 2019)

Administrative review before a court puts a pension board’s determination of a benefit under a microscope.   Although there is the prospect that the decision will be reversed, pension boards actually enjoy a significant advantage when their decisions are appealed thanks to the concept of judicial deference.

However, as illustrated by the recent case of Ashmore v. Board of Trustees of the Bloomington Police Pension Fund, 2018 IL App (4th) 180196, this deference is not without its limits. In Ashmore, the court reversed a pension board’s decision to deny a police officer disability benefits, concluding that the board got the facts and its credibility determinations wrong in determining that the officer was not disabled. The case is instructive, as it is an example of a court concluding that a pension board’s decision was so clearly wrong, that it justified substituting the court’s determination to grant the police officer line-of-duty disability benefits.

Before analyzing the varying types of judicial deference, it is helpful to break down into three categories the types of issues on appeal. First, there are questions of fact, which are questions about what actually happened. Second, there are questions of law. These questions revolve around what the law says and how it applies to a given case. Finally, there are mixed questions of law and fact, which is a combination of the first two categories.

Whether a given issue on appeal is a question of fact, a question of law, or a mixed question has significant consequences; specifically, which “standard of review” applies. A standard of review is the amount of deference a court affords to the decisions of the pension board. The extent of deference depends on whether the question is a question of law, a question of both law and fact, or a question solely based on fact.

There are three main standards of review that can be applied with respect to appeals of pension board decisions: the “manifest weight of the evidence” standard, the “clearly erroneous” standard, and de novo review.

The “manifest weight of the evidence” standard applies to questions of fact and provides great deference to the board. In fact, it is the most deferential standard with respect to an administrative agency’s findings and conclusions. As such, where a board’s ruling on a factual dispute is appealed, courts will generally not disturb the board’s findings unless it is obvious that an opposite conclusion should have been drawn.

Review under the clearly erroneous standard is also very deferential to agency decisions. Courts apply the clearly erroneous standard to mixed questions of law and fact. Agency deference is given in situations of mixed questions of law and fact because agencies have specialized expertise and experience in a particular subject. Thus, when there is a mixed question of law and fact, an agency decision will be found to be erroneous only when the reviewing court, after looking at the entire record, is “left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” (AFM Messenger Serv., Inc. v. Dep’t of Employment Sec., 198 Ill. 2d 380, 395 (2001))

Not all standards of review grant the pension board substantial deference in the appeals process. An appeal that involves undisputed facts and statutory interpretation presents a question of law and is interpreted de novo. (See Fields v. Schaumburg Firefighters’ Pension Bd., 383 Ill. App. 3d 209, 210 (1st Dist. 2008)) The phrase “de novo” means “new” and allows a court to decide an issue without deference to prior decisions. In other words, de novo review calls for the court to independently review the question of law without adhering to lower court or administrative agency decisions.

What standard of review applies sometimes makes or breaks a case on appeal. As such, there is often dispute over which standard applies. However, even when the manifest weight of the evidence standard is applied—and the most amount of deference is given—pension boards are not guaranteed their decisions will be upheld.

The recent case of Ashmore v. Board of Trustees of the Bloomington Police Pension Fund illustrates these dynamics. There, a former police officer filed an application for disability pension benefits after a fall that occurred while pushing a vehicle out of the snow. While pushing the car, the officer slipped and fell on the ice placing all of his weight on his left arm. The officer argued that he was injured in an “act of duty” and was therefore entitled to a line-of-duty pension rather than a non-duty pension.

The pension board appointed three independent medical examiners to evaluate the officer. Two out of the three independent physicians found that the officer was disabled. The third physician, however, concluded that the officer’s injuries resulted from the fall but, because his duties as a police officer were administrative in nature, the officer was not disabled under the Illinois Pension Code.

The Board concluded the officer was not disabled, finding the officer “less than credible” because of minor discrepancies in his medical records and testimony. The board also relied on the third IME physician’s opinion that the officer was not disabled—even though it was the minority opinion. The officer appealed arguing that the Board’s finding that he was not disabled was wrong.

The appellate court explained that whether a police officer is disabled is a factual determination, which means that the manifest weight of the evidence standard applied. Strikingly, the court found that the Board’s decision was against the manifest weight of the evidence. For one, the Board had improperly relied on the third IME physician’s report, which referred to the officer’s job as “administrative” whereas, in reality, his job description required general policing duties. As such, the opposite conclusion was clearly evident.

Second, the appellate court concluded that the Board’s determination regarding the officer’s credibility was in error. The Board based its adverse credibility determinations on the fact that the officer’s testimony and his medical records conflicted in parts. However, the court found with over two thousand pages of medical records, there were likely to be minor inconsistencies. Furthermore, the inconsistencies pertained to largely collateral issues and were irrelevant to the bigger picture of whether the officer was disabled. Therefore, the court held that in reviewing the record in its entirety, it was clearly evident that the officer was disabled.

On appeal, pension funds usually enjoy some deference to their findings and conclusions. What standard of review to be applied is often hotly litigated because they can result in divergent outcomes. The manifest weight of the evidence standard, for instance, is intensely deferential, while the de novo standard offers no deference whatsoever.

As demonstrated by the Ashmore case, however, this deference is not limitless. Where a pension fund makes a decision that is unsupported by the record, even the manifest weight of the evidence standard of review cannot save it. Therefore, pension boards should always strive to make decisions that accord with the evidence before them.