The Will County Sheriff’s Office may have been correct in denying dozens of deputies additional pension benefits to which they may have believed they were entitled, but may have erred in misclassifying four of the deputies now suing, a state appellate court has ruled.

A three-justice panel for the Illinois Third District Appellate Court found at least four Will County deputies may be entitled to additional pension benefits and remanded their lawsuit against the county, the sheriff’s office and Sheriff Paul Kaupas back to the trial court.

In 2014, a court in the 12th Judicial Circuit granted Will County summary judgment in Case No. 09-L-960, in which 66 deputies claimed they should have been accruing benefits under the Sheriff’s Law Enforcement Pension plan (SLEP) well before they were classified into the plan. The plaintiffs sought an order requiring Will County to purchase pension credits and to cover attorney fees.

On Aug. 27, the appellate court, based in Ottawa, upheld the summary judgment for most of the defendants, but said there is evidence at least four – and possibly six – of the defendants had put years into their employment as sworn deputies before being classified into SLEP.

In its opinion, the appellate court decried the lack of explanation or detail in the summary judgment granted by the circuit court. According to court documents, at the outset of the hearing the circuit court judge said any order for summary judgment would be brief, because the case would have to start fresh on appeal.

“It really doesn’t matter why I make the decision that I do,” the judge is quoted as saying. “The Appellate Court is not going to care, I don’t think, because it is de novo review.”

In a footnote attached to the quote, the appellate court wrote, “The trial court is quite simply wrong. …The trial court presided over the litigation for 4 ½ years and its reasoning for awarding summary judgment, while not determinative, could add to this court’s understanding of the issues.”

The justices went on to say the lack of detail also left the parties on both sides of the suit without any clear explanation of which, if any, of their arguments were effective, so the documents in the appeal were essentially copies of the initial litigation.

The deputies engaged in the suit had all been reclassified into SLEP on either Dec. 1, 2005 or Dec. 1, 2006, but said they had been accruing benefits before those dates. In reviewing documents attached to the suit, the appellate court found documentation that four of the deputies – Ronald D. Adams, Terence A. Bergin, Deborah Coleman and Christopher Wilhelmi – had indeed been sworn in years earlier, and struck down the summary judgment in the case of those individuals. The court said a document filed by Will County actually made reference to six deputies who were sworn in on earlier dates, but did not identify them. The appellate court said if two more deputies with earlier sworn dates could be identified, they too should have their case reheard.

In the case of the remaining 60 to 62 deputies, the appellate court ruled that the summary judgment was appropriate.

“While we acknowledge that the evidence indicated that these plaintiffs performed many of the same work duties as sworn deputies, that fact is not enough to supersede the statutory oath requirement,” the court said.

The court’s opinion was delivered by Justice Mary McDade, with justices Robert L. Carter and Mary K. O’Brien concurring.

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