Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. James
C. Murray, Judge, presiding.
JUSTICE LORENZ DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:
Rehearing denied April 8, 1986.
Defendant, Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (IMRF) appeals from a judgment ordering it to pay disability benefits to the plaintiff. The narrow question herein presented involves the application of that portion of section 7-146 of the Illinois Pension Code (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 108 1/2, par. 7-146) which permits payment of disability benefits to an employee, despite a pre-existing condition, if the employee has five years of creditable service without receiving a disability benefit. Defendant's board of trustees denied plaintiff's claim on the basis that: (1) plaintiff's disability resulted from a physical condition that plaintiff already had when hired; (2) plaintiff did not have five years of participating service when disabled. The circuit court of Cook County reversed the administrative decision of the board of trustees and held that because plaintiff remained on the payroll as a full-time employee for eight months after incurring his disability, during which time he continued to make regular pension contributions, the five year statutory "creditable service" requirement was satisfied. The court found that plaintiff's inability to be physically on the job from September 1982, when he first became disabled, to May 1983, when he filed a claim, had no bearing in computing the statutory period which entitled plaintiff to disability payments.
Plaintiff was hired by the village of Melrose Park as a laborer in its department of sewers on February 1, 1978. During his years of service with the village, plaintiff was a participating member of the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (IMRF) and made regular and continuous contributions to the IMRF from his payroll check.
In September 1982, plaintiff began to experience seizures as a result of a physical abnormality known as hydrocephalus. Medical records reveal that plaintiff had suffered from this condition since 1975 when he underwent a frontal craniotomy to remove a neoplasm or tumor. From the time of disability until May 15, 1983, plaintiff remained on the village payroll as a full-time employee and continued to make regular and continuous contributions to the IMRF even though he was unable to be physically on the job or to perform his official duties and services. These facts are corroborated by the affidavit of C. August Taddeo, the acting mayor of the village of Melrose Park at that time.
In June 1983, plaintiff applied for disability benefits on the basis of section 7-146(b)(6) of the Illinois Pension Code. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 108 1/2, par. 7-146(b)(6).) This statute, which governs payment of disability benefits, provides, in pertinent part, that an individual may not receive a disability benefit due to a pre-existing condition unless the individual has five years of creditable service without receiving a disability benefit. Defendant's board of trustees denied plaintiff's claim in spite of the fact that plaintiff had been employed by the village of Melrose Park from September 1, 1982, to May 15, 1983, as a full-time employee, had made regular contributions from his payroll check to the fund, and had not applied for or received disability benefits during the aforementioned period. According to defendant, the last nine months of employment subsequent to the onset of plaintiff's seizures could not be counted towards the statutory requirement period because plaintiff's contribution to the village had not constituted productive work and was therefore insufficient to be considered "creditable service." The board thereby made the finding that plaintiff's disability resulted from a physical condition, which existed on February 1, 1978, and that he was not eligible for a disability benefit. Upon review, the circuit court of Cook County reversed the decision of the board and ordered that disability benefits be paid to the plaintiff. Defendant appeals from this decision.
At issue in this case is the meaning and effect of that portion of the Illinois Pension Code, which provides:
"(b) A temporary disability benefit shall be payable to a temporarily disabled employee provided:
6. His disability is not the result of a mental or physical condition which existed on the earliest date of service from which he has uninterrupted service, including prior service, at the date of his disability, provided that this limitation shall not be applicable to a participating employee who, without receiving a disability benefit, receives 5 years of creditable service." Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 108 1/2, par. 7-146(b)(6).
• 1 Defendant first contends that because plaintiff suffered from a pre-existing condition at the time he was hired and lacked the five years of participating service at the time of his disability, he was precluded from obtaining benefits under the subject statute. Defendant's contention is predicated on the theory that the five-year qualifying condition for eligibility of disability benefits applies as of the date the employee is disabled.
Plaintiff urges that whether his physical condition was pre-existing or not is inconsequential to the present determination of eligibility for disability benefits since he has satisfied the two conditions which allow individuals in such instances to circumvent the pre-existing condition restriction of the statute. Thus, in addition to not having received disability benefits during the period in question (an issue not in dispute here), plaintiff claims to have had five years of creditable service as of the date of his claim.
The fundamental question brought forth by this appeal is therefore whether plaintiff qualifies for five years of uninterrupted creditable service so as to make him eligible for disability ...