Denial of Disability Pension Reversed Due to Bias By Pension Board Members

An Illinois firefighter who claims she was sexually harassed to the point she became disabled, has prevailed in the appeal of the denial of her disability pension because three of the five pension board members participated in the harassment.

Sugar Grove Fire Protection District lieutenant Sara Naden claims she was forced off the job in March, 2014 after suffering panic attacks that she attributed to “intense criticism, ridicule, and sexual harassment by her male coworkers—both her subordinates and her superiors—over many years.”

Her application for a disability pension was denied by The Firefighters’ Pension Fund of the Sugar Grove Fire Protection District. She appealed the decision to the Kane County Circuit Court who upheld the denial of the disability pension. Naden then appealed to the 2nd District Appellate Court.

The appeal focused on two issues:

  1. Whether the board’s decision was “against the manifest weight of the evidence”
  2. Whether the board was biased against Naden since three of its five members had participated in the harassment against her.

From the 2nd District’s decision:

  • In her testimony before the Board, Naden stated that she had been subjected to intense criticism, ridicule, and sexual harassment by her male coworkers—both her subordinates and her superiors—over many years.
  • According to Naden, she had “crying spells” and “anxiety attacks” at work, and she “continually fe[lt] sick to [her] stomach.”
  • On March 10, 2014, Naden sought treatment from her primary care physician for panic attacks. Naden’s physician assessed her panic attacks and prescribed medication for anxiety and depression.
  • Naden continued to work regular shifts for the District until March 31, 2014. On April 2, 2014, Naden sent an e-mail to then-District Chief Martin Kunkel and requested a leave of absence from the District, citing her anxiety and her treatment by her coworkers.
  • The District granted Naden 12 unpaid workweeks of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA
  • However, in conjunction with her leave, the District asked Naden to submit a written complaint regarding her allegations of sexual harassment.
  • Naden prepared a 16-page single-spaced report and submitted it to the District on April 8, 2014. Naden’s report described dozens of alleged incidents of workplace harassment since 2006. Many of the incidents described harassment by then-Lieutenant Brendan Moran (now a battalion chief) and firefighters Jason Nichols and Mike Warner.
  • On May 13, 2014, under the Firemen’s Disciplinary Act (50 ILCS 745/1 et seq. (West 2014)), the District issued Naden a “Notice of Interrogation” stating that, despite her FMLA leave, a formal inquiry would commence at the station the following week.
  • The notice stated that “[t]he purpose of this interrogation is to fully investigate complaints made by Lt. Sara Naden regarding claims of harassment.”
  • Naden sought a continuance of the hearing. The District responded by suspending the hearing indefinitely; thus, the interrogation remains ongoing.
  • Naden did not return to work when her 12 weeks of leave ended; the parties do not dispute that her last reported day of work was March 31, 2014. Naden subsequently applied for workers’ compensation benefits, filed a claim of sex discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and sought either a line-of-duty or a non-duty disability pension.
  • The five-member Board heard additional evidence and unanimously concluded in a roll-call vote that Naden was not disabled and thus not eligible to receive either a line-of-duty or a non-duty pension.
  • Administrative hearings are quasi-judicial proceedings that must comport with due process. Due process requires that a judge possess neither actual nor apparent bias.
  • There is, however, a strong presumption of honesty and integrity in the decisions of adjudicators.
  • To overcome that presumption, an applicant must prove that the proceedings were “tainted by dishonesty or contained an unacceptable risk of bias against the app[licant].”
  • Furthermore, “[i]f one decision maker on an administrative body is not completely disinterested, his participation infects the action of the whole body” and renders the resulting decision unsustainable.
  • The record reflects that conflicts of interest were held by a majority of the trustees. Three of the five members of the Board—Chairman Moran and trustees Nichols and Warner—were also firefighters specifically named as antagonists in Naden’s 16-page written complaint to the District. In her complaint, Naden accused each of these three trustees of having engaged in repugnant behavior years before she left the department and sought her pension.
  • No person should be tried before a biased adjudicator in any capacity; however, the danger of prejudice is heightened by the greater influence wielded by a board’s elected chairperson.
  • [E]ach of the three trustees named in Naden’s complaint had a material, direct, personal interest in denying her disability claim, whether to discredit her or to retaliate against her. The degree of bias rendered the Board’s decision unsustainable; it is therefore vacated.

The court rejected Naden’s other grounds for appeal and remanded the case back to the Board for rehearing with unbiased hearing officers.

Here is a copy of the decision: Naden v. The Firefighters’ Pension Fund of the Sugar Grove Fire Protection District

Those who have been through the Managing Disciplinary Challenges in the Fire Service program will recognize the due process issue.  One of the seven essential components of procedural due process is the right to in impartial tribunal. As the 2nd District pointed out, this issue is so fundamental to due process that even if a party fails to raise it earlier in a proceeding, it may be raised “at any time”. Quoting from the decision: “the United States Supreme Court has explained that judicial-disqualification claims raise a form of structural error, which may be noticed at any time. See Williams v. Pennsylvania, 579 U.S. ___, ___, 136 S. Ct. 1899, 1909 (2016).

 

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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