APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. ARTHUR
L. DUNNE, Judge, presiding.
MR. JUSTICE PERLIN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:
Plaintiff, John W. Higgins (hereinafter referred to as Higgins), appeals from an order of the circuit court of Cook County entered on May 25, 1978, which granted a motion of defendant, Columbia Tool Steel Company (hereinafter referred to as the Company), to vacate an order previously entered by the court on March 7, 1978. In its order of May 25, 1978, the court also "affirmed" an arbitrator's award which the court construed as determining that plaintiff was ineligible for pension benefits under the Company's pension agreement. Plaintiff has presented a number of issues for review *fn1 but the dispositive question is whether the trial court erred when it entered its initial order on February 14, 1975, finding that "plaintiff had acquired vested rights under the Pension Agreement * * *" and as a result referring to arbitration only the issue of the amount of the pension benefits to which plaintiff was entitled.
Seldom has this court been confronted with such a comedy of confusion and error. Although the tenor of this case approaches the absurd and the incidents slapstick, the resolution of this issue is a serious matter not only for the parties to this cause, but also for those who would look to this court's decisions for their precedential impact. For the reasons hereinafter set forth we reverse and remand for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
On November 2, 1972, the Company, by resolution of its board of directors, extended to its salaried employees, including its district sales managers, the provisions of the pension agreement theretofore negotiated between the Company and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Shipbuilders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers. This agreement called for the arbitration of all disputes involving eligibility for pension benefits or the amount of said benefits.
Higgins was 56 years old and an applicant for pension benefits. He was employed by the Company from March 1, 1954, until November 30, 1970. On January 16, 1973, Higgins was rehired by the Company as a district sales manager. On February 10, 1973, Higgins received notice of his termination which was to become effective on March 15, 1973. However, Higgins left the employment of the Company on February 11, 1973.
On September 10, 1974, Higgins filed a three-count complaint requesting declaratory judgment against the Company on grounds that Higgins had a vested contractual right to a lifetime pension. Higgins alleged in count I that his rights under the pension agreement had been arbitrarily terminated by the Company after those rights had vested, even though the agreement did not provide for a forfeiture of Higgins' rights. Higgins contended in count II that his discharge from employment without cause constituted an agreement within the meaning of section 2.5 of the pension agreement between the Company and him that his retirement was in their mutual interest. *fn2 In count III, Higgins urged that his arbitrary discharge was a breach of contract and his damages were to be measured by the pension benefits to which he would have otherwise been entitled.
On October 5, 1974, the Company filed a verified answer and set forth therein five affirmative defenses. The Company contended (1) that Higgins was ineligible under section 2.5 of the pension agreement; (2) that Higgins did not "retire" in accordance with the plan; (3) that Higgins had never met with a representative of the Company with respect to any differences as required by the extension agreement nor had Higgins requested the question be referred to an impartial umpire as required by the extension agreement; (4) that Higgins did not make a pension application as required by the extension agreement; and (5) that Higgins never acquired any vested rights under the agreement as provided in section 10.4. *fn3
On November 18, 1974, the Company filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings alleging that Higgins did not qualify for pension benefits under the pension agreement and that Higgins had not exhausted his remedies as required by section 7.1 of the agreement. *fn4 After hearing argument on the Company's motion, the trial court in its order of February 14, 1975, (1) denied the Company's motion for judgment on the pleadings; (2) dismissed Higgins' complaint without prejudice; (3) directed the parties to seek arbitration; (4) retained jurisdiction over the subject matter; (5) found that Higgins had "acquired vested rights under the Pension Agreement referred to in the complaint upon fifteen years of service with [the Company]"; and (6) found no just reason to delay enforcement or appeal of the order.
The parties then selected an arbitrator. At a proceeding before the arbitrator on November 26, 1975, the arbitrator remarked: "The question is, what is the effect of * * * [the trial court's finding that Higgins had acquired a vested right] [in] the order of February 14, 1975. I do not find it clear enough to proceed with any degree of accuracy or comfort on what I am supposed to do." The arbitrator then sent the parties back to the trial court for clarification. *fn5 On January 30, 1976, the parties appeared before the trial court to obtain clarification. The following colloquy took place:
"Mr. Stevens [Company's counsel]: The Court entered an order on February 14, 1975 finding that the plaintiff acquired vested rights under the pension agreement referred to in the complaint upon fifteen years of service with the defendant. The parties went to the conference room to draw an order. There was a discussion. A dispute as to what the Court was finding arose. Mr. Berman [Higgins' counsel] and myself returned [and] reapproached the bench. Mr. Berman specifically asked whether or not the Court was finding that this man had become eligible for a pension. The Court stated that it was not finding what rights the man was entitled to, as that was a matter for the arbitrator to decide.
Mr. Stevens: You were merely finding that he acquired vested rights under the pension agreement upon fifteen years of service.
Mr. Berman [Higgins' counsel]: Can the arbitrator determine he has no vested ...