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Eckman v. Board of Trustees

OPINION FILED MAY 21, 1986.

GARY ECKMAN, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,

v.

BOARD OF TRUSTEES FOR THE POLICE PENSION FUND FOR THE CITY OF ELGIN ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Kane County; the Hon. John L. Nickels, Judge, presiding.

JUSTICE HOPF DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Plaintiff, Gary Eckman, filed a complaint for administrative review of an action taken by the defendant board of trustees of the police pension fund for the city of Elgin (board), wherein the board, pursuant to section 3-151 of the Illinois Pension Code (the Code), reduced plaintiff's disability pension benefits in an amount equal to workers' compensation benefits he was to receive from the city of Elgin. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 108 1/2, par. 3-151 (now codified as Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 108 1/2, par. 3-114.5).) The board filed a motion to dismiss plaintiff's complaint, alleging that the board's action was not subject to administrative review. The trial court denied the board's motion to dismiss. At a subsequent hearing on plaintiff's complaint for administrative review the court ruled in plaintiff's favor, reversing the board's decision to reduce plaintiff's disability pension benefits pursuant to section 3-151 of the Code. The board appeals.

In this court the defendants argue that the trial court erred in finding that the board's interpretation and application of section 3-151 of the Code was unconstitutional; that the board's action in reducing plaintiff's disability pension benefits did not constitute an administrative decision subject to review; and that the board's action, if subject to administrative review, was not against the manifest weight of the evidence.

On October 21, 1983, plaintiff, a police officer employed by the city of Elgin and a contributor to the police pension fund administered by the board, applied for disability pension benefits. Plaintiff sought work related disability benefits, maintaining that he had incurred certain injuries to his back on August 27, 1982, and October 21, 1982, while on duty. The board sent plaintiff to three doctors for their respective opinions regarding plaintiff's physical condition. All agreed that plaintiff's condition presently prevented him from performing regular or even light duty. Based on the opinions of these doctors but also on the fact that the board believed the plaintiff had not incurred the injuries while on duty in August and October 1982, the board decided to award plaintiff nonduty disability pension benefits, or benefits worth 50% of his former salary as a police officer. In a letter dated December 13, 1983, the board informed plaintiff that it had elected to place him on "a regular disability pension."

On or about March 20, 1984, plaintiff, who had also filed a claim against the city of Elgin for workers' compensation benefits for the August and October 1982 injuries, entered into a lump-sum settlement agreement with the city. On April 19, 1984, the board, upon receipt of a letter indicating plaintiff's lump-settlement award by workers' compensation, reduced plaintiff's pension payments by the amount equal to plaintiff's settlement award, pursuant to section 3-151 of the Code. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 108 1/2, par. 3-151 (now codified as Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 108 1/2, par. 3-114.5).) The board notified plaintiff of this reduction in a letter dated April 20, 1984.

On June 8, 1984, plaintiff filed a complaint for judicial review of administrative decision, requesting that the board's April 19 decision reducing plaintiff's pension benefits be reversed and that the board be ordered to pay the benefits to plaintiff without deduction for monies received by plaintiff as a result of the workers' compensation settlement. Alternatively, plaintiff requested the court to modify the board's December 1983 decision placing plaintiff on a non-duty-related disability pension to a duty-related pension, awarding plaintiff, retroactively, pension benefits of 65% of his former salary rather than benefits of 50%, as formerly determined by the board.

The board filed a motion to dismiss, stating that the board's administrative act of reducing plaintiff's pension benefits did not constitute a decision subject to administrative review, as its action was mandated by section 3-151 of the Code. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 108 1/2, par. 3-151 (now codified as Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 108 1/2, par. 3-114.5).) Additionally, the board maintained that the plaintiff was barred from seeking modification of the board's December 1983 decision since plaintiff did not seek administrative review of that decision within 35 days of his receipt of that decision as required by the Administrative Review Law. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 110, par. 3-103.) At a hearing conducted on the board's motion to dismiss on October 9, 1984, the court denied the motion.

Subsequently, the board filed a record of proceedings of the board of trustees for the Elgin police pension fund pertaining to the disability pension due plaintiff. This record was supplemented with plaintiff's letter to the board regarding his injuries. After consideration of this record and the supporting memoranda of the parties, the trial court interpreted section 3-151 of the Code to mean that an individual's disability pension benefits should be reduced by the amount of his workers' compensation benefits only when a work-related pension is involved. To interpret the statute as referring to both the work-related and non-work-related pension benefits, as the board did, would, in the trial court's opinion, permit "double recovery" by the board. The court found the board's interpretation of section 3-151 to be unconstitutional and further recommended that the legislature should amend the language of the statute to "clarify and specifically provide that the reduction of pension benefits by a lien against workers' compensation proceeds may only occur in work-related pensions and not in non-work-related pensions."

The court reversed the board's decision reducing plaintiff's benefits and ordered the board to pay plaintiff pension benefits without reduction for benefits received in conjunction with the workers' compensation settlement as well as to reimburse plaintiff for pension benefits the board had previously deducted.

The board filed a timely notice of appeal.

• 1, 2 We first consider whether the trial court erred in finding that the board's interpretation and application of section 3-151 of the Illinois Pension Code was unconstitutional. In its order the trial court found the board's interpretation of section 3-151 to be unconstitutional, as it would permit "double recovery" by the board. In reality, however, the question addressed by the trial court did not concern the constitutionality of the board's interpretation of the statute but rather the reasonableness. It is this question of reasonableness which we consider in this opinion.

The parties have presented no cases dealing with an interpretation of section 3-151. Our research has revealed only one, a case from this district, Taft v. Board of Trustees (1985), 133 Ill. App.3d 566, 479 N.E.2d 31, which did involve section 3-151. In Taft, this court was concerned with the reduction of a police officer's disability pension benefits by the amount of benefits payable to him under the Workers' Compensation Act. However, the reduction was not objected to for the same reasons espoused here (see 133 Ill. App.3d 566, 479 N.E.2d 31), and the case did not require this court to construe the statute.

Additionally, our review of other pension statutes which contain language nearly identical to that found in section 3-151, e.g., General Assembly Retirement System (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 108 1/2, par. 2-121.2), firefighters' pension fund (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 108 1/2, par. 4-114.2), Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 108 1/2, par. 7-222), and Judges Retirement System of Illinois (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 108 1/2, par. 18-128.2), has disclosed only one other case pertaining to the effect of workers' compensation benefits upon disability pension benefits. That case, Sellards v. Board of Trustees (1985), 133 Ill. App.3d 415, 478 N.E.2d 1123, involved a reduction of a fireman's disability pension benefits by the amount of payments he was receiving under workers' compensation. The issue upon review in Sellards was dissimilar to the present issue. However, of note to our determination in the instant case is the fact that the Sellards opinion indicates the injury which resulted in the reduction of the pension benefits was duty related. Likewise, the injury resulting in the pension benefits in Taft was also work related.

In circumstances such as exist in the instant case where the statute in question has not yet been judicially interpreted, "a court is guided by both the plain meaning of the language in the statute as well as legislative intent. [Citation.]" (Tisoncik v. Szczepankiewicz (1983), 113 Ill. App.3d 240, 245, 446 N.E.2d 1271.) When the statutory language is clear and unambiguous, the court's only function is to enforce the law as enacted by the legislature. (Price v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. (1983), 116 Ill. App.3d 463, 470, 452 N.E.2d 49.) But, where a statute is unclear or susceptible to more than one meaning, as the parties ...


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