by Michael B. Weinstein (Winter 2019)

It is settled law that a discharged police officer cannot later apply for disability benefits. But what constitutes an “application” for disability benefits? This was the question that confronted the Illinois Appellate Court in the case of Keeling v. Board of Trustees of the Forest Park Police Pension Fund, 2017 IL App (1st) 170804.

Officer Jason Keeling alleged that he had suffered a disability as a result of injuries that he sustained while working as a police officer in the Village of Forest Park. However, while he was on leave due to his injury, an internal investigation was commenced into certain allegations that were made against him. The investigation ultimately resulted in Keeling tendering his resignation as a police officer.

Prior to his resignation, Keeling met with his union representative who advised him to file an application for a disability pension. Keeling then met with Officer Rob Bryant, the president of the police union, who also happened to be a trustee of the Forest Park Police Pension Fund. According to Keeling, Officer Bryant brought a two-page document, entitled “Duty Disability/Occupational Disease … Information Request Form” to the meeting. At the meeting Keeling completed the document and both men signed it.

Officer Bryant later testified that he thought the information request form “would start the [disability] ball rolling” but “was not totally sure of the official start.” Nevertheless, Bryant also knew that there was a separate application form. Furthermore, on the same day that Keeling and Bryant signed the information request form, the Board’s attorney prepared correspondence to Keeling. While acknowledging Keeling’s “request for an application for disability benefits” the Board attorney stated in the letter:

In order for the Pension Board to begin to adjudicate your claim, the Pension Board will require you to fully complete the enclosed Application for Disability Pension benefits. Please completely fill out the enclosed Application and return it to me at the above address. [emphasis added]

The attorney’s letter went on to describe the Board’s disability hearing process and advised Keeling that “no action can be taken until such time as you complete and submit the enclosed Application….” Keeling acknowledged receiving this letter but testified that he did not immediately submit the application form because “it was too early in my treatment and I didn’t know what the extent of my injuries would be.”

Ultimately, on July 8, 2015, Keeling submitted his resignation, effective April 23, 2014. The next day he completed and filed the designated application form. However, given the fact that Keeling had terminated employment before he filed the designated application form, the Board of Trustees of the Fund held an evidentiary hearing to determine whether it possessed the necessary jurisdiction to consider his claim for disability benefits.

At the hearing, Keeling, through his attorney, argued that the information request form was sufficient to commence the disability proceeding or, alternatively, that he had detrimentally relied upon the actions of Trustee Bryant in believing that the information request form was sufficient.

Nevertheless, the Board dismissed Keeling’s disability claim for lack of jurisdiction, finding that he had not applied for disability benefits while still employed as a police officer. Furthermore, the Board found that the legal doctrine of “equitable estoppel” regarding Keeling’s detrimental reliance did not apply to his application since Keeling did not demonstrate that Officer Bryant’s actions were affirmative acts on behalf of the Board of Trustees.

Keeling then filed for administrative review. The trial court ruled in his favor, finding that the Board was unable to deny jurisdiction. The Board appealed the lower court decision to the Illinois Appellate Court.

The Appellate Court first noted that it was clear that in order to receive a line-of-duty disability pension, pursuant to Section 3-114.1(a) of the Illinois Pension Code, an individual must be a police officer. Moreover, previous case law has determined that, as a matter of statutory construction, one must file an application for disability benefits while still employed as a police officer. Thus, the court needed to determine whether the information request form that was filed while Keeling was still employed constituted an “application” for disability benefits.

Initially, the court noted that Keeling filed the designated application form after he had resigned from the police department. Although he had filed the information request form while he was still employed, that form was, at best, an application for information. Accordingly, the Board’s conclusion that it lacked jurisdiction to consider Keeling’s application for disability benefits was not against the manifest weight of the evidence.

But what about the question of “equitable estoppel”? Here, the court noted that the doctrine of equitable estoppel may be applied against a public body only under compelling or extraordinary circumstances. Furthermore, in order to prevail, an aggrieved party must prove three things: (1) the public body affirmatively acted; (2) its act induced the aggrieved party’s substantial reliance; and (3) the aggrieved party substantially altered its position due to justifiable reliance.

In this case the evidence showed that Keeling failed to overcome the strong presumption against applying equitable estoppel against a public body, First, Keeling did not identify any affirmative act by the Board. On the contrary, Keeling testified that he met with Officer Bryant in Bryant’s capacity as union president and not in his capacity as a Board trustee. Furthermore, the acts of a ministerial officer, such as Bryant, are not necessarily the acts of the public body. Thus, Bryant’s act of tendering the information request form was not attributable to the Board.

Moreover, even assuming that Bryant’s actions constituted affirmative acts of the Board, Keeling also failed to show that he justifiably relied upon those actions. By his own admission, Keeling had specifically been told that he needed to file an application for disability benefits.

Keeling’s fellow officers, the police union’s attorney, as well as the Board’s attorney, all had told him that he needed to file an application. Therefore, Keeling did not demonstrate that he had been misled in any manner such that he could justifiably assert equitable estoppel.

As the court explained:

The Board adopted a disability application form that Keeling has not challenged as being unreasonable. Yet, Keeling did not file that application while employed as a police officer. Thus, the Board properly found Keeling’s application was untimely. Even assuming that Keeling subjectively misunderstood what needed to be done to preserve his claim, no affirmative act of the Board caused that misunderstanding and the doctrine of equitable estoppel did not apply.

A word to the wise: when applying for disability benefits be sure to file the proper application form with the Board while still employed; otherwise, the Board lacks jurisdiction to consider a request for disability benefits.