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07/29/94 JAMES LABELLE v. STATE EMPLOYEES

July 29, 1994

JAMES LABELLE, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
STATE EMPLOYEES RETIREMENT SYSTEM OF ILLINOIS, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Lake County. No. 92-MR-393. Honorable Jack Hoogasian, Judge, Presiding.

Released for Publication September 1, 1994.

Bowman, McLAREN, Colwell

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bowman

JUSTICE BOWMAN delivered the opinion of the court:

Plaintiff, James LaBelle, appeals from the order of the circuit court of Lake County which affirmed the finding of defendant, the State Employees Retirement System of Illinois (System), that plaintiffwas not eligible for nonoccupational disability benefits due to his "gainful employment" as a member of the Lake County Board (County Board). The issue on appeal is whether petitioner, who was an elected member of the County Board during the period of his disability, was "gainfully employed" within the meaning of section 14-124 of the Pension Code (40 ILCS 5/14-124 (West 1992)) and the regulations interpreting section 14-124. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings.

The facts are essentially undisputed. Plaintiff was employed as a general manager with the Department of Conservation (Department). In March 1988, plaintiff was diagnosed as having malignant lymphoma, a form of cancer. In November 1990, plaintiff underwent a bone marrow transplant and remained in the hospital until December 24, 1990. On December 27, 1990, he took a leave of absence from the Department.

On January 16, 1991, plaintiff submitted to the System an application for nonoccupational disability benefits. On February 7, 1991, the System notified plaintiff by letter that it had approved plaintiff's claim for benefits. The System awarded plaintiff $1,625.81 for the period commencing on January 14, 1991, and ending on January 31, 1991. Thereafter, plaintiff would receive a monthly benefit of $2,800. Plaintiff received this monthly benefit until he returned to work on July 7, 1991.

On September 19, 1991, the System discovered that plaintiff was an elected member of the County Board. Plaintiff was sworn in as a County Board member on December 1, 1980, and has served in that capacity continuously. He was reelected to this post in 1992, and his current term expires in 1996. In a letter dated September 24, 1991, the System informed plaintiff that, because of his employment as a County Board member, he was not eligible to receive disability benefits. The System demanded that plaintiff reimburse it for the $16,258.07 that it mistakenly paid him. The letter also informed plaintiff that the System's executive committee would review this decision at their next meeting.

At the hearing before the executive committee, plaintiff stated that he did not attend any County Board meetings until he attended the March 1991 meeting. Thereafter, he attended one meeting per week, staying at each meeting for two or three hours. Although he was unable to attend the County Board meetings from the onset of his disability until March 1991, during this period, he received his full regular salary of $1,692.30 per month. On June 11, 1992, the executive committee found that plaintiff was gainfully employed within the meaning of the applicable regulations and affirmed the decisionto deny plaintiff's claim for disability benefits. On July 28, 1992, the System's board of trustees ratified the executive committee's decision.

On August 27, 1992, plaintiff filed in the circuit court of Lake County a complaint seeking administrative review of the board of trustees' decision. (See Ill. Rev. Stat. 1991, ch. 110, par. 3-103 (now codified, as amended, at 735 ILCS 5/3-103 (West 1992)).) The court found that plaintiff's "'service' in his elected position is adequate to satisfy the exchange requirement (compensation for services) prerequisite to a finding that he was gainfully employed during his time of disability" and affirmed the board of trustees' decision. Plaintiff timely appealed.

Section 14-124 of the Pension Code provides for the payment of nonoccupational disability benefits, under certain enumerated circumstances, to certain members of the System. (40 ILCS 5/14-124 (West 1992).) One of the conditions of receiving the benefits is that the member be granted a disability leave of absence from his employment. (40 ILCS 5/14-124 (West 1992).) Once a member begins to receive the benefits, the benefits "shall continue to accrue until the first of the following to occur: * * * the date on which the member engages in gainful employment. " (Emphasis added.) 40 ILCS 5/14-124 (West 1992).

Pursuant to section 14-135.03 of the Pension Code (40 ILCS 5/14-135.03 (West 1992)), the System's board of trustees has promulgated a regulation which defines "gainful employment" as "any remuneration which exceeds $500.00 in any month." (80 Ill. Adm. Code § 1540.80(e)(2) (1991).) The regulation defines "remuneration" as "any compensation for personal services including fees, wages, salary, commissions, and similar items." 80 Ill. Adm. Code § 1540.80(e)(2)(A)(i) (1991).

Because the board of trustees has promulgated a regulation which further defines the statutory term "gainful employment," this appeal involves a review of an administrative agency's interpretation of its own regulations. Courts reviewing an agency's decision generally accord the agency broad discretion when making decisions based on the statutes that they must enforce and accord great deference to an agency's interpretation of its own regulations. ( People ex rel. Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board v. Oregon Community School District 220 (1992), 233 Ill. App. 3d 582, 586.) This deference stems from a recognition that administrative agencies "can make informed judgments upon the issues, based upon their experience and expertise." ( Illinois Consolidated Telephone Co. v. Illinois Commerce Comm'n (1983), 95 Ill. 2d 142, 153, 69 Ill. Dec. 78, 447 N.E.2d 295.) Although an agency's interpretationis not binding on the court, the court will give great weight to an agency's construction and application of its own regulation unless it is clearly erroneous, arbitrary, or unreasonable. Water Pipe Extension, Bureau of Engineering v. Illinois Local Labor Relations Board (1993), 252 Ill. App. 3d 932, 936, 192 Ill. Dec. 578, 625 N.E.2d 733; Mitee Racers, Inc. v. Carnival-Amusement Safety Board (1987), 152 Ill. App. 3d 812, 816-17.

Plaintiff advances essentially three arguments in support of his claim that the board of trustees' decision is clearly erroneous. First, he claims that his serving as a county board member cannot be considered "gainful employment" in light of certain provisions of the Counties Code and the Illinois Constitution. The Counties Code states that elected county board members "shall receive such compensation as is fixed by the county board in accordance with the method of compensation selected by the county board." (55 ILCS 5/4-10001 (West 1992).) Section 2-3008 of the Counties Code, which mirrors article VII, section 9(b), of the Illinois Constitution, states that any changes in the "compensation" of county board members ...


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