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Marshall v. Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Retirement Fund

July 14, 1998

GERALD W. MARSHALL, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
METROPOLITAN WATER RECLAMATION DISTRICT RETIREMENT FUND, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Cousins

APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF COOK COUNTY

THE HONORABLE Aaron Jaffe, JUDGE PRESIDING.

Plaintiff sustained heart-related injuries while in the course of his duties for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (District). Based on the Industrial Commission's finding that none of plaintiff's injuries resulted in permanent total disability and plaintiff's allegedly late filing of his application for benefits, defendant denied plaintiff duty disability pension benefits. The circuit court on administrative review set aside defendant's denial of benefits, ruling that plaintiff's five-week hospitalization tolled the statutory deadline for filing for benefits; also, that laches barred defendant from denying plaintiff benefits where defendant unnecessarily waited more than 13 years after plaintiff filed his application for benefits before making its decision. On appeal, defendant argues that: (1) plaintiff is collaterally estopped from relitigating the issue of whether his current condition of total disability is related to his work with the District; and (2) laches was improperly considered a bar against defendant's denial of coverage based on plaintiff's late filing of his application for benefits.

BACKGROUND

On September 2, 1981, while under the employ of the District, plaintiff overheard noise coming from the parking area near his work station at the Chicago River locks. Plaintiff investigated the disturbance and found a woman calling for help to save a drowning man. After several unsuccessful attempts, plaintiff and the woman managed to pull the man from Lake Michigan. Plaintiff experienced chest pains hours later and was taken to a hospital emergency room, where it was determined that plaintiff was suffering a heart attack. Plaintiff was admitted to the hospital's intensive care unit and spent approximately 2½ weeks in the hospital. Follow-up examinations revealed that plaintiff's heart attack resulted in approximately 30% irreversible loss of heart function.

On September 28, 1981, plaintiff resumed work with the District on a light-duty basis. Plaintiff continued working until February 11, 1982, when he suffered an angina attack after receiving the results of a civil service test. Plaintiff missed approximately 1½ weeks of work as a result of the angina attack, but he returned to work thereafter. Plaintiff worked through April 30, 1982, at which time he was hospitalized for blood clotting in his legs. Plaintiff's physician determined that the clotting was caused by the inability of plaintiff's weakened heart to circulate blood forcefully enough. Although plaintiff's anti-clotting medication improved his condition, it was subsequently determined that standing or sitting exacerbated plaintiff's clotting problem. Plaintiff did not return to work after April 30, 1982, and he was hospitalized in excess of five weeks during the months of May, June, and July 1982. Plaintiff was eventually deemed disabled in a medical opinion written by plaintiff's physician on July 18, 1986.

During the course of his employment with the District, plaintiff filed claims for workers' compensation for each of his three injuries. Following the District's denials of plaintiff's claims and the resulting arbitration hearings in each case, the Industrial Commission concluded that plaintiff's heart attack incident of September 2, 1982, was work-related and awarded plaintiff temporary total disability compensation and permanent partial disability compensation. The District appealed this decision to the circuit court on administrative review and the Illinois Appellate Court, both of which upheld the award of the Industrial Commission. Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago v. Industrial Comm'n, 272 Ill. App. 3d 732, 650 N.E.2d 671 (1995). With respect to plaintiff's angina attack of February 11, 1982, the Industrial Commission granted plaintiff temporary total disability compensation, but no compensation for permanent disability. Plaintiff's third claim for workers' compensation based upon blood clotting in his legs was dismissed on plaintiff's own motion.

In addition to his workers' compensation claims, plaintiff filed an application for duty disability pension benefits with defendant on August 23, 1982. Defendant chose not to make a determination as to plaintiff's application for duty disability pension benefits until a final decision had been made by the courts with respect to plaintiff's workers' compensation claims. After the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed plaintiff's initial workers' compensation award, defendant finally conducted its administrative hearing with respect to plaintiff's claim for duty disability benefits. This hearing occurred on January 31, 1996, well over 13 years after plaintiff had filed his application for such benefits. Defendant ultimately determined that plaintiff was not entitled to duty disability benefits, reasoning that plaintiff's application had been untimely filed, that plaintiff had already received unrelated compensation for his injuries, and that plaintiff's blood-clotting condition, by virtue of not being work-related, precluded him from receiving duty disability benefits.

Plaintiff subsequently petitioned the circuit court for administrative review of defendant's denial. On review, the circuit court set aside defendant's decision on the grounds that the statute of limitations for filing the duty disability application was tolled during the periods in which plaintiff was hospitalized, and that laches barred defendant from refusing to pay plaintiff the duty disability benefits for which he had applied. Defendant appeals from that decision.

We reverse and remand with directions.

ANALYSIS

Defendant first contends that plaintiff is collaterally estopped from relitigating the issue of whether his current condition of total disability from work is causally related to his employment with the District. In support of its position, defendant points to the fact that the Industrial Commission did not find that plaintiff was permanently and totally disabled after April 30, 1982, as a result of any of his accidents at work.

Generally, collateral estoppel precludes a party from relitigating issues resolved adversely to them in a prior civil proceeding with another party. In re Owens, 125 Ill. 2d 390, 397 (1988). The Owens court set forth the threshold requirements for collateral estoppel as follows: (1) the issue decided in the prior adjudication is identical with the one presented in the action at bar; (2) there was a final judgment on the merits in the prior adjudication; and (3) the party against whom collateral estoppel is asserted was a party or in privity with a party to the prior adjudication. Owens, 125 Ill. at 399-400. In addition, the party against whom estoppel is asserted must have had a full opportunity to litigate the issue. Wolford v. Owens-Corning Fiberglass Corp., 176 Ill. App. 3d 312, 314, 530 N.E.2d 721, 722 (1988).

Applying the above rules to the case sub judice, we note that, initially, it may seem as though the pivotal issue in plaintiff's prior adjudication before the Industrial Commission is identical to that currently presented by defendant; namely, whether plaintiff is disabled from work as a result of an accident or accidents arising out of his employment with the District. Upon closer inspection, however, we determine that the issue before this court is not identical to that previously adjudicated. The issues before the Industrial Commission in plaintiff's consolidated litigation involved the extent of plaintiff's permanent injuries in the context of the Workers' Compensation Act (820 ILCS 305/1 et seq. (West 1994)), whereas plaintiff's petition for duty disability benefits dealt with his injuries in the context of the Illinois Pension ...


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