Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. James
C. Murray, Judge, presiding.
PRESIDING JUSTICE LINN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:
Following a hearing before the board of fire commissioners of the North Main Fire Protection District (board), plaintiff, Gordon E. Pientka, was discharged from his position as a firefighter employed by the North Main Fire Protection District (district) on the ground that he had lied when he represented to the district and to the Industrial Commission that he had injured his back on March 6, 1979, while on duty. Pientka filed a complaint for administrative review under the Administrative Review Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 110, par. 264 et seq.).
Meanwhile, in a separate proceeding before the Industrial Commission, Pientka and the district entered into a lump sum settlement contract resolving four workers' compensation claims filed by Pientka between 1976 and 1979. The trial court reversed the decision of the board and remanded the case with specific instructions to the board to consider the effect of the settlement contract on its decision to discharge Pientka. After reconsideration, the board affirmed Pientka's discharge, whereupon he filed a second complaint for administrative review. This time the trial court reversed the decision of the board in its entirety, and the board filed this appeal.
Three issues are raised on appeal: (1) whether the trial court erred in considering the settlement contract to be a judicial admission of liability on the part of the board, (2) whether the trial court erred in reversing the decision of the board as being against the manifest weight of the evidence, and (3) whether section 4(h) of the Workers' Compensation Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 48, par. 138.4(h)) prevents the board from discharging plaintiff.
We reverse the decision of the trial court and affirm the decision of the board.
The record discloses that Gordon Pientka, a firefighter employed by the district, was assigned to the 24-hour shift beginning at 8 a.m. on March 6, 1979. Also on duty that day was Firefighter Michael Bronk, who testified that by 10 a.m., Pientka was complaining that his back was bothering him. Although Pientka worked at various tasks around the fire station during the day, he complained that his back was growing steadily worse, until by 9:30 p.m. he was unable to walk. However, Bronk testified that when he suggested that Pientka go to the hospital, Pientka refused unless he could claim that he had been injured on the job so that he could claim workers' compensation benefits. When Pientka asked Bronk to support his story that he had slipped in some water on the apparatus floor, Bronk said he could not. Pientka was then taken by ambulance to Lutheran General Hospital. Nearly a year later, Pientka requested that Bronk meet him in the hospital parking lot, and he asked again if Bronk would support his story at the upcoming Industrial Commission hearing. Bronk again refused.
On March 7, 1979, the day following his treatment at the hospital, Pientka filed his workers' compensation claim and was placed on inactive duty. He retained that status for more than a year except for a period of five weeks in 1979 when he returned temporarily to light duty. Not until the new fire chief, Walter Kelly, received a report from Pientka's doctor allowing him to return to limited duty did he begin to investigate Pientka's claim. Finally, as a result of his interview of Michael Bronk, Kelly filed formal charges against Pientka requesting that the board discharge him from his position.
Pientka's version of the incidents in question was decidedly different. He testified that at no time on March 6 had he complained about his back until after he slipped and fell late that evening. Further, he said that neither on the night he was taken to the hospital nor at the meeting a year later in the hospital parking lot did he ask Bronk to support his story, but instead simply asked if Bronk had seen him slip and fall.
On January 20, 1981, the board announced its findings and decision to discharge Pientka. Specifically, the board found that Bronk was a more credible witness than Pientka and that Bronk's version of the activities in question provided sufficient evidence to support Pientka's discharge for falsely reporting to both the district and to the Industrial Commission that he had injured his back while on duty.
Meanwhile, following the March 7, 1979, filing of Pientka's workers' compensation claim, the Industrial Commission held hearings to determine the validity of that claim and three others previously filed by Pientka. A hearing officer presided over several days of testimony, which resulted in a record of over a thousand pages. However, before the hearing officer could render his decision, he died; consequently, Pientka and the district were faced with three alternatives: (1) a new Industrial Commission hearing officer could conduct new hearings, (2) a new hearing officer could make a decision after reading the transcript and reviewing the exhibits from the original hearing, or (3) the parties could reach a settlement. Deciding that the third choice was the most expeditious, on March 30, 1981, Pientka and the district agreed to settle all four claims for a lump sum of $6,500.
The settlement contract specifically recited the following:
"[T]here are disputed questions of law and fact. The parties agreed to this settlement to avoid further litigation, believing it is fair and reasonable under the circumstances, wherein the Respondent [District] claims they have no liability whatsoever as a result of any and all claims, known ...