A state appeals court has ordered a Chicago firefighters' pension board to award a paramedic a duty disability pension equal to 75 percent of her salary after a little over five years on the job, because they said the board ignored evidence the paramedic had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The board had rejected the claim because they said the paramedic’s disability claim arose years later from incidents paramedics can regularly encounter.
On Feb. 1, a three-justice panel of the Illinois First District Appellate Court found in favor of the plaintiff, Leah Siwinski, who had served as a paramedic at the Chicago Fire Department from December 2008 until January 2014.
Two years after she began working for the department, Siwinski responded to a call in which a firefighter she knew was laid dead on her stretcher. Siwinski testified she was not emotionally prepared for such an incident.
Justice Thomas E. Hoffman Illinoiscourts.gov
In the months that followed, Siwinski said she began experiencing symptoms of anxiety and PTSD. In 2011, she took a seven-month leave for non-duty illness. She testified that she was seeing a therapist, but a stigma that surrounds first responders seeking mental health treatment made her reluctant to seek further help.
Seven months after returning to work, Siwinski experienced another traumatic incident when she responded to the scene of a shooting. The victim was already dead when she arrived, according to court documents, but onlookers became enraged that the paramedics could not help him, threatening them and throwing objects. Siwinski’s mental state deteriorated further.
For the last six months of her CFD career, Siwinski worked a desk job for the assistant deputy chief, but even though she was off the streets her purported symptoms of PTSD did not improve. She was placed on medical leave in January 2014 and did not return to work.
In December 2015, the Retirement Board of the Firemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund of the City of Chicago unanimously denied Siwinski’s application for a duty disability pension, which entitles recipients to 75 percent of their salary for life, for becoming disabled in the line of duty.
Siwinski requested administrative review, and Cook County Judge Peter Flynn vacated and remanded the decision. Without reviewing any additional evidence, the board denied the request a second time, and the circuit court confirmed it.
The board claimed Siwinski did not have PTSD because her symptoms were self-reported years after the traumatic incidents occurred and because the type of trauma she experienced is common in paramedic work. The board also indicated it did not believe Siwinski’s symptoms because she once said she did not like her job and because, at the time she applied for the job, she did not indicate she had a history of depression. Any symptoms she experienced, the board found, were related to her depressive disorder and did not qualify her for duty disability.
The appellate court identified three questions in its review: whether Siwinski sustained an injury; whether that injury resulted from an act of duty; and whether that injury prevented her from performing her duties at CFD. The appellate justices found the board decided against the manifest weight of the evidence in every question.
The appellate justices found the record clearly identified two traumatic situations Siwinski encountered while on duty as a paramedic and that she was diagnosed with PTSD during residential treatment in 2014. Both her therapist and the board’s own psychiatric expert testified that Siwinski had PTSD related to her job as a paramedic. The board’s expert also opined that the PTSD – and not depression – was the specific issue that prevented Siwinski from being able to work for the CFD, even in an administrative capacity.
In making its decision, however, the board relied solely on the testimony of its second witness, a doctor without psychiatric training, the appellate decision said. That doctor did not offer an opinion on whether Siwinski has PTSD, but said she must not be disabled because she was able to carry out her duties up to her last day of work.
“The board … was not tasked with choosing between the evidence of ‘witnesses qualified in their fields’ who ‘stated their opinions and gave their reasons for those opinions,’” the appellate justices wrote, noting the second doctor “conceded he lacked relevant expertise” while the first doctor “diagnosed the plaintiff with PTSD and cogently explained why her condition resulted from her employment with CFD.”
In its review, the appellate court noted that both the psychiatric experts had testified PTSD symptoms commonly manifest long after a trauma occurs and are typically self-reported. In addition, it said, Siwinski had consistently described her symptoms to multiple people over a period of time, lending credence to her reliability.
Whether Siwinski’s experiences are common to paramedics is irrelevant, the justices said, because different people may have different psychological reactions to the same event.
The appellate court reversed the decision of the board and the decision of the circuit court that supported it. The case was sent back to Judge Flynn with directions to establish fees for Siwinski’s attorney and costs, and to the board with directions to award her duty disability benefits retroactive to her last day of employment.
Justice Thomas E. Hoffman authored the opinion, and justices Shelvin L.M. Hall and Bertina E. Lampkin concurred.
According to Cook County court records, Siwinski is represented by attorney Jerome Marconi, of Chicago.