Appellate Court Orders Reinstatement of Disabled Firefighter’s Pension

An Illinois appellate court has ruled that a firefighter who injured his back moving bottled water in the firehouse, is entitled to receive a line-of-duty disability pension. That ruling reverses a decision by the Circuit Court of Du Page County that said that Roselle firefighter Ryan Case was ineligible for such a pension because he failed to disclose pre-existing back problems when he was hired and because moving bottled water was not an “act of duty.”

The case dates back to Case’s hiring by the Village of Roselle in May 2015. Case had previously been a firefighter in various other Illinois communities, and had received treatment several times for back strains. Yet when asked during his pre-employment medical exam for Roselle, Case denied even having a back injury. Quoting from the decision:

  • At his May 13, 2015, preemployment physical examination, he gave certain responses that the Village asserts were false.
  • Specifically, he stated that (1) he had never had a back injury and (2) he did not currently have any of the listed musculoskeletal problems, including back pain.
  • On September 18, 2016, Case was on duty. The fire department was preparing for their annual open house, during which the fire station would be open to the public.
  • The shift commander ordered Case and another firefighter to perform various tasks in preparation, including moving cases of bottled water from one side of the station to the other and then filling a cooler with the bottles.
  • While filling the cooler, Case felt a pop and pain, and began having a hard time moving his legs.
  • Paramedics were called and Case was transported to a hospital emergency room.
  • The MRI taken that day showed an acute right-side L5-S1 disk herniation compressing the S1 nerve root.
  • Thereafter, Case began a course of treatment that included pain medications, physical therapy, cortisone shots, and eventual surgery to fuse his lumbar spine.
  • He was permanently restricted to lifting less than 50 pounds and was unable to return to full duty as a firefighter/paramedic for the Village.
  • He applied for a duty disability pension under section 4-110 of the Illinois Pension Code.
  • Case was examined by three independent medical examiners (IMEs), who were provided with all of his medical records.
  • The IMEs unanimously concluded that Case was disabled as a result of his September 2016 injury.
  • The [Board of Trustees of the Roselle Firefighters’ Pension Fund] (Board) issued a detailed decision finding that Case was disabled as a result of the September 2016 injury and that he met the requirements for a duty disability pension.
  • As to the Village’s argument regarding Case’s untruthfulness during the preemployment physical examination, the Board agreed that, “[a]lthough the Applicant denies suffering prior back injuries or experiencing prior back pain, the record is replete with evidence to the contrary.”
  • Nevertheless, the Board held that Case’s untruthfulness did not change the requirements for a duty disability pension and was “not an issue to be adjudicated by the Board.”
  • Case had clearly proved both that he was disabled and that the September 2016 injury led to his disability.
  • The Board noted that the identified act need not be the sole cause of the disability and that it was sufficient that the act aggravated or exacerbated a previous, nondisabling condition.
  • The Village sought administrative review in the circuit court.
  • It held that Case’s injury was not caused by an “act of duty” because Case was not “saving the life or property of another” when the injury occurred.
  • It also held that the Board erred in determining that it had no statutory authority to deny Case’s application on the basis of his untruthfulness in his preemployment physical examination.

Case appealed to the Second District Appellate Court of Illinois, seeking to have the Board’s decision reinstated. In ruling in Case’s favor, the court held the Board was justified in awarding him the line-of-duty disability pension. Quoting from the ruling:

  • As the Code plainly sets out, it is the purview of the state’s attorney, not the board to determine whether fraud was committed and, if so, to bring charges and pursue a conviction. The board’s general fiduciary obligation to pay disability benefits only to “those who qualify for such payments” cannot change this statutory scheme.
  • None of the statutory provisions cited by the Village support its contention that the Board was authorized to determine whether Case committed fraud, and we cannot read such authorization into the Code.
  • A pension board’s determination on an application for a duty disability pension… and the board’s fiduciary duties do not give it license to act as an investigative or prosecutorial body with respect to preemployment misstatements.
  • Under the circumstances of this case, the Board acted properly in declining to consider Case’s false statements, which the IMEs unanimously found to be irrelevant to his current disability, and instead hewing to the test set out in section 4-110.
  • We turn to the central issue in this case: whether Case was performing an act of duty, as that term is defined by the statute, when his disabling injury occurred.
  • Although section 4-110 (which governs duty disability pensions for firefighters in smaller municipalities like the Village) does not define the term “act of duty,” courts have held that it means the same thing as the definition of “act of duty” found in section 6-110, a companion statute governing duty disability pensions for firefighters in large cities.
  • Under that definition, an “act of duty” includes any act that is (1) “imposed on an active fireman by the ordinances of a city, or [(2)] by the rules or regulations of its fire department, or [(3)] any act performed by an active fireman while on duty, having for its direct purpose the saving of the life or property of another person.”
  • To qualify for a duty disability pension, firefighters need only show that one of these definitions is met.
  • Thus, if Case was performing an action required by the rules or regulations of the Village’s fire department, he did not need to prove that his action was also undertaken to protect life or property.

Here is a copy of the decision:

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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