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Virden v. Board of Trustees of Firefighters Pension Fund

April 16, 1999


Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 10th Judicial Circuit Tazewell County, Illinois No. 97--MR--31 Honorable John A.Barra, Presiding Judge

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Koehler

This case involves an administrative order of the firemen's pension board of trustees denying the fireman a line-of-duty disability pension. The Board of Trustees of the Firefighters Pension Fund of the City of Pekin (Board) denied the plaintiff, Harry E. Virden, a line-of-duty disability pension. The plaintiff appealed under the administrative review law to the circuit court of Tazewell County, which reversed the Board's decision. The defendants now appeal. We must decide the following questions: (1) Was the circuit court's application of the "clearly erroneous" standard of review proper? and (2) Was the Board's decision based on an incorrect application of the facts to the law and, therefore, clearly erroneous? Because we conclude that the circuit court did not err, and that the Board's decision was clearly erroneous, we affirm.


The plaintiff, a 57-year-old male, has been a firefighter for the City of Pekin for 22 years and has worked as a hoseman, a firefighter, and an equipment driver. In 1996, the plaintiff applied for a line-of-duty disability pension based upon debilitating hypertension and severe anxiety aggravating the hypertension. The plaintiff claims that his disability arose from three significant experiences during his career. The plaintiff's first experience occurred in January 1992 while performing a rescue on a woman having breathing difficulties. He experienced a pounding in his head, profuse sweating, chest pains and a blood pressure reading of 230/140. He was hospitalized for three days and given a prescription for Procardia, a common blood pressure medication. The medication was changed sometime afterward to Norvasc and Hytrin. The plaintiff returned to regular firefighter duty shortly after his release from the hospital. The record does not indicate that this rescue required the plaintiff to engage in strenuous physical exertion.

The plaintiff's next experience occurred in October 1995 while responding to a rescue call that required the plaintiff to carry an obese individual, lying on a gurney, down a flight of twisting stairs. After the physical exertion, the plaintiff again experienced headache, chest pain and elevated blood pressure. The Pekin fire chief would not allow the plaintiff to work again until a full cardiac test was conducted and a doctor released him to work. A cardiac catherization revealed that the plaintiff was not suffering from any coronary artery disease. He returned to work in late January 1996.

The plaintiff responded to a large house fire in February, 1996, and fought the fire for two hours. During this time he experienced fatigue, a "pounding headache" and profuse sweating. After putting out the fire, the plaintiff returned to the fire house. There the plaintiff had his blood pressure taken and, at the chief's suggestion, was taken to the Pekin Memorial Hospital emergency room. The doctor administered an EKG and treated the plaintiff with nitroglycerine and Procardia capsules. The plaintiff did not work again until October 1996 when he resumed light duty work.

Dr. James Smalley, a cardiologist, treated the plaintiff from January 1992 until the fall of 1996. He determined that the plaintiff suffered from hypertension and chest pain syndrome from an unknown cause, possibly hyperanxiety. Between August 1996 and November 1996, several more doctors examined the plaintiff. Their findings are as follows: (1) Dr. Robert Bielinski diagnosed the plaintiff with hypertension, cause unknown, and he considers the plaintiff disabled from firefighting due to his excessive physiological reaction to stress. In his opinion, the disability was "aggravated by and precipitated during his occupation." He noted that the plaintiff's family has a history of hypertension and premature cardiac artery disease. (2) Dr. Paul Schmidt found evidence of hypertension, but no sign of coronary artery disease. He also found that the plaintiff's chest pain and elevated blood pressure resulted from hyperanxiety. (3) Dr. Ron Santschi administered a 24-hour EKG monitoring device. He found 95% of the 102 readings recorded acceptable. Dr. Santschi's notes indicated "perfectly normal" results. (4) Dr. John Noak treated the plaintiff and noted that the plaintiff's hypertension was under control for day-to-day living, but that it was not under control for situations involving moderate to excessive emotional or physical stress, such as firefighting. (5) Dr. Kabatay, a psychiatrist, determined that the plaintiff suffered from anxiety disorder and an occupational problem which he described as job dissatisfaction. Dr. Kabatay concluded that the plaintiff suffered from hypertension surges and that his problems were moderate, primarily secondary to anxiety in job-related situations.

The Board held two hearings to consider the plaintiff's disability pension. At the second hearing, Dr. Noak, who had been the occupational physician for defendant City of Pekin since August 1995, reviewed his own records and those of the other doctors and testified to the following diagnosis: (1) no evidence of coronary artery disease; (2) a few episodes of atypical angina; (3) hypertension; (4) hypertension with upward excursions, meaning his blood pressure will shoot higher on occasion; (5) anxiety; and (6) an occupational problem, described as unhappiness with his job. Dr. Noak concluded his evaluation by stating that the plaintiff has "underlying hypertension *** that has gotten worse [over the years]. When he [the plaintiff] is exposed to an event that he perceives as being stressful, the hypertension gets worse, at times, dangerously so." Dr. Noak also testified that hypertension and anxiety have strong genetic factors and tend to run in families.

The Board, applying section 4--125 of the Illinois Pension Code (the Code) (40 ILCS 5/4--125 (West 1996)), by unanimous vote concluded the plaintiff was disabled for service in the fire department. However, in determining whether the disability arose due to an "act of duty" as defined in the firemen's annuity fund article found in section 6--110 of the Code (40 ILCS 5/6--110 (West 1996)), four Board members concluded that the disability resulted from an act of duty, and four Board members concluded that the disability did not. In light of the tie vote, the board concluded that the plaintiff had not sustained his burden of proving that the disability resulted from an act or acts of duty and denied the pension. Subsequently, the plaintiff sought administrative review in the Tazewell County circuit court.

The circuit court held that the issue on appeal was a mixed question of law and fact and, therefore, applied a clearly erroneous standard of review. The circuit court found that the Board clearly erred when applying section 6--110 (40 ILCS 5/6--110 (West 1996)) and found that the evidence overwhelmingly indicated that the plaintiff's disability resulted from specific acts of duty. Accordingly, the circuit court reversed the Board's finding and issued an order granting the plaintiff a line-of-duty disability pension. The defendants now appeal.


Standard of Review

Did the circuit court apply the proper standard of review when it found the issue on appeal to be a mixed question of fact and law and, accordingly, reviewed the issue under the clearly erroneous standard? This appeal is a review of an order from an administrative agency and comes to us through the Administrative Review Law (735 ILCS 5/3--110 (West 1996)). Judicial review of an administrative agency's decision extends to all questions of law and fact. 735 ILCS 5/3--110 (West 1996).

An administrative agency's findings and Conclusions of fact are considered prima facie true and correct. 735 ILCS 5/3--110 (West 1996). In reviewing an administrative agency's factual findings, we do not reweigh the evidence; therefore, we are limited to determining whether the factual findings are against the manifest weight of the evidence. City of Belvidere v. Illinois State Labor Relations Board, 181 Ill. 2d 191, 205, 692 N.E.2d 295, 302 (1998). However, our review of an administrative agency's determinations on questions of law is de novo. City of Belvidere, 181 Ill. 2d at 205, 692 N.E.2d at 302. Where the issue involves the legal effect of ...

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