Court of Appeals Holds that Terminal Leave Counts Toward Pension Credits

The Appellate Court of Illinois has ruled that a former fire chief was entitled to pension credit for the four and one-half months he was on paid administrative leave prior to his retirement. The case involved the former fire chief for the Orland Fire Protection District, Kenneth Brucki.

Chief Brucki was placed on paid administrative leave on August 21, 2015. On October 14, 2015, the district and Chief Brucki signed a “retirement agreement” that allowed the chief to remain on paid administrative leave until January 4, 2016, at which time he would retire.

When Chief Brucki retired on January 4, 2016, a dispute arose over the calculation of his service time and his salary at the time. The pension board contended that his active service ended on August 21, 2015, and therefore his pension should be based on his salary and service as of that date.

Chief Brucki argued that he pension should have been upon his retirement date of January 4, 2016. At issue was not simply the four and one-half months of service, but a 3% pay raise he received on January 1, 2016, which brought his salary from $181,220 to $186,449.

Both sides sought guidance from state officials, dragging the final decision out to 2019. When the pension board made its final decision to base his pension on the August 21, 2015 date, Chief Brucki sued. The Cook County Circuit Court agreed with the pension board prompting the appeal to the Appellate Court.

Quoting from the decision:

  • The issue of Brucki’s pension calculation appears to present a mixed question of law and fact, subject to the clearly erroneous standard. A decision is clearly erroneous where we are left with the firm and definite conviction that a mistake has been made.
  • Although the clearly erroneous standard is deferential, we will not blindly defer to the Board’s decision.
  • The parties agree that Brucki had more than 20 years of creditable service, as he was employed by the Pleasantview Fire Department for more than 17-1/2 years prior to joining the District.
  • Rather, their disagreement centers on the “monthly salary attached to the rank held by him… in the fire service at the date of retirement.”
  • The Board ultimately decided that Brucki “is entitled only to benefits as of the last date of August 20, 2015 at the salary attached to the rank of Fire Chief as of August 21, 2015.”
  • In reaching its decision, the Board expressly relied on the advisory opinion from the [Illinois Department of Insurance].
  • The [Illinois Department of Insurance] found that Brucki was not a “firefighter” under the applicable provisions of the Pension Code and Municipal Code during the time of his paid administrative leave.
  • The applicable provision of the Pension Code defines “firefighter” as “any person employed by a city in its fire service as a firefighter, fire engineer, marine engineer, fire pilot, bomb technician, or scuba diver; and, in any of these positions whose duties include those of a firefighter and are certified in the same manner as a firefighter in that city.”
  • Based on the foregoing definitions, the [Illinois Department of Insurance] found that Brucki was not a firefighter during his paid administrative leave.
  • Simply put, we reject this finding.
  • Although the Department found that Brucki “was not expected to routinely perform firefighter duties” during his leave, such language in the Municipal Code definition only addresses “clerks and dispatchers or other civilian employees” of the District.
  • Brucki – as the chief and as a certified firefighter – was not a civilian employee of the District. The Department’s restrictive view is contrary to the principle that the provisions governing firemen’s pensions must be liberally construed in favor of the applicant
  • In conclusion, while we recognize that the Board has a fiduciary obligation to all participants and beneficiaries of the pension fund – and that the Board cannot and should not pay a beneficiary more than that to which he is entitled – we are left with the firm and definite conviction that a mistake has been made in the instant case.
  • We thus reverse the decision of the Board and the circuit court and remand with instructions to recalculate and award pension benefits to Brucki based on a final date of service of January 4, 2016, and an annual salary amount which includes the 3% adjustment – $186,449. In light of the foregoing, we need not address Brucki’s alternative argument regarding due process.

Here is a copy of the

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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