An attempt by the village of Oak Park to establish a new way to evaluate whether its firefighters claiming to have been "catastrophically injured" in the line of duty should receive retirement health insurance benefits, has drawn a legal challenge from the union representing its firefighters, who say the village’s ordinance establishing the new rules violates Illinois state law and the firefighter’s rights as public employees under the state constitution.
On Nov. 26, International Association of Firefighters AFL-CIO Local 95 filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court against Oak Park, its mayor and village board.
The lawsuit focuses on the village board’s approval of an ordinance in early September, which creates a new administrative procedure for “assessing and determining claims” under the Illinois Public Safety Employee Benefits Act.
Under that law, firefighters and other public safety workers who have suffered a “catastrophic injury” or been killed in the line of duty, and their spouses and dependents, are eligible for health insurance benefits paid by their employer. In this case, that would mean the village of Oak Park could be required to pay those health benefits for any of its firefighters who have been hurt while performing their duties.
While the PSEBA law doesn’t define the term “catastrophic injury,” Local 95’s complaint notes the Illinois Supreme Court, in its 2003 decision in Krohe v City of Bloomington, defined “catastrophic injury” for PSEBA purposes as any injury suffered by a firefighter or other safety responder for which the injured worker receives a “line-of-duty disability” pension benefit. Such pensions can entitle firefighters, police officers and others who are injured on the job to receive 65 percent of their salary for as long as they are deemed to be disabled.
Further, Local 95 argued PSEBA bars local governments from providing benefits “in a manner inconsistent with” the PSEBA law.
In the ordinance, the Oak Park village board placed a different definition on “catastrophic injury,” defining it as injuries “which permanently prevent an individual from performing any gainful work.” The ordinance further defines “gainful work” as “full- or part-time activity that actually is compensated or commonly is compensated.”
The ordinance also requires firefighters and other village workers seeking benefits under PSEBA to file their claims within 30 days “of filing a pension claim with the city.” If firefighters had previously sought PSEBA benefits, they were given 30 days from the adoption of the ordinance to file their application.
And the ordinance would require workers seeking PSEBA benefits to include “nine categories of documents or information” in their PSEBA application, including “an applicant’s firsthand description of events; a signed medical authorization release; a general information release; a witness list; and all pension board information.” The application must also be “sworn and notarized.”
Local 95 argues those requirements all violate the PSEBA law and the Illinois state constitution, by adding steps not included under the law and throwing up obstacles to firefighters receiving constitutionally-protected retirement benefits they were otherwise entitled to receive.
“The Village’s PSEBA Ordinance purports to establish a procedural framework for consideration of applications for PSEBA benefits, but it instead creates new and different substantive requirements for eligibility that do not appear in the state statute and have the effect of limiting awards of PSEBA benefits to Plaintiffs and other Village firefighters represented by Local 95 who would otherwise be eligible under (PSEBA),” Local 95 said in its complaint.
The union argued the only criteria acceptable under PSEBA to determine firefighters’ eligibility is a determination by the Oak Park firefighters’ pension board that a firefighter had suffered an injury entitling them to a line-of-duty pension.
Anything more than that, they argued, violates the Illinois state constitution’s so-called pension protection clause, which forbids the state or other local governments from enacting regulations or rules that would “diminish or impair” workers’ retirement benefits.
“Under the Pension Protection Clause, a pension fund member's health care benefits are guaranteed,” Local 95 wrote in its complaint. “Those benefits may not be diminished or impaired through unilateral legislation or otherwise, no matter the circumstances.”
Local 95 is represented in the action by attorneys Margaret Angelucci, Matthew Jarka and Matthew Pierce, of the firm of Asher Gitter & D’Alba, of Chicago.