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Villarreal v. Village of Schaumburg

October 19, 2001


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Gallagher


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County Honorable LESTER D. FOREMAN Judge Presiding.

This action was brought by plaintiff, John Villarreal, seeking an order of mandamus requiring defendants, the Village of Schaumburg, village manager Kenneth Fritz and director of human resources Darold Pitzer, to provide plaintiff with health insurance coverage at defendants' expense pursuant to the Illinois Public Safety Employee Benefits Act (820 ILCS 320/1 et seq. (West 1998)) (the Act), and to reimburse him for any health insurance costs and medical expenses incurred following his retirement due to a duty-related disability. Plaintiff now appeals an order of the trial court granting defendants' motion for summary judgment and denying plaintiff's motion for summary judgment. We affirm.


The relevant facts are undisputed. Plaintiff was employed as a police officer by the Village of Schaumburg police department from July 1, 1981, until he was given a disability retirement pension on December 23, 1999. On May 28, 1989, plaintiff responded to a call for assistance and was kicked in the knee during his arrest of a suspect. As a result, plaintiff's knee cartilage and ligaments were seriously damaged, and he also suffered a broken leg. Due to his injury, plaintiff was off work for approximately one year, during which time he underwent surgery and physical therapy. Plaintiff returned to a light duty desk assignment and eventually returned to full duty as a police officer. Plaintiff remained on full duty for the next 10 years.

On July 9, 1999, plaintiff suffered a second injury to his knee. The second injury resulted from plaintiff's response to a report of home invasion and his pursuit of the suspect. During the pursuit, plaintiff jumped down a drop of approximately four feet and felt his knee give out. Plaintiff again underwent surgery and physical therapy. Ultimately, however, as a result of his 1999 injury, the village police pension board (the Board) concluded that plaintiff was fully disabled from serving on the police department so as to qualify him for retirement from service. On December 23, 1999, the Board granted plaintiff a duty-related disability pension of 65% of his salary. Plaintiff is currently self-employed and owns a small contracting business, Villarreal Construction.

On December 30, 1999, plaintiff wrote a letter to defendant Pitzer requesting free health insurance coverage for himself and his family pursuant to the Act. Pitzer denied the request based upon his conclusion that plaintiff was not eligible for the benefits because his injury was not a "catastrophic injury" which is required under the Act.


I. Standard of Review

We first address our appropriate standard of review. It is well established that in order to qualify for the issuance of a writ of mandamus, the following requirements must be met: a plaintiff must show a clear, affirmative right to the requested relief, a clear duty of the defendant to act, and clear authority in the defendant to comply with the writ. Noyola v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, 179 Ill. 2d 121, 133, 688 N.E.2d 81, 88 (1997); Orenic v. Illinois State Labor Relations Board, 127 Ill. 2d 453, 467-68, 537 N.E.2d 784 (1989); Senn Park Nursing Center v. Miller, 104 Ill. 2d 169, 182, 470 N.E.2d 1029 (1984). "Where *** public officials have failed or refused to comply with requirements imposed by statute, the courts may compel them to do so by means of a writ of mandamus, provided that the requirements for that writ have been satisfied." Noyola, 179 Ill. 2d at 132, 688 N.E.2d at 86 (1997).

Mandamus is not a writ of right but, rather, an extraordinary remedy that is awarded only in the exercise of sound judicial discretion according to legal principles. League of Women Voters v. County of Peoria, 121 Ill. 2d 236, 242, 520 N.E.2d 626, 629 (1987). In view of this discretion on the part of the trial court, its decision to grant or deny mandamus generally will be reversed on appeal only when it is against the manifest weight of the evidence. See, e.g., People ex rel. Braver v. Washington, 311 Ill. App. 3d 179, 186, 724 N.E.2d 68, 73 (1999). In the instant case, however, the trial court's decision did not involve the weighing of evidence or the exercise of discretion. Rather, the procedural posture of the instant case is an appeal from a grant of summary judgment. The reviewing court applies a de novo standard of review to summary judgment orders. Outboard Marine Corp. v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., 154 Ill. 2d 90, 607 N.E.2d 1204 (1992). Both parties assert, and this court agrees, that there is no disputed issue of material fact in the present case. Where there is no genuine issue of material fact, the sole function of a reviewing court is to determine whether the trial court's judgment was correct as a matter of law. Cates v. Cates, 156 Ill. 2d 76, 78, 619 N.E.2d 715, 716 (1993). Moreover, as we shall discuss further, this case involves construction of a statute. It is well established that statutory construction is a question of law to be decided by the reviewing court without deference to the judgment of the trial court. Advincula v. United Blood Services, 176 Ill. 2d 1, 12, 678 N.E.2d 1009, 1015 (1996). The de novo standard of review is proper in this case. Lucas v. Lakin, 175 Ill. 2d 166, 170, 676 N.E.2d 637, 640 (1997). That is the standard of review that this court shall use, but we believe it would be useful to further address our rationale for applying a de novo standard of review.

In support of the applicability of a de novo standard, defendants cite Overend v. Guard, 98 Ill. App. 3d 441, 443-44, 424 N.E.2d 731, 733 (1981). But the Overend court merely explained that a trial court's misinterpretation of a statute or constitutional provision under which a petitioner seeks mandamus is not an "act of discretion to which courts of review will defer." Overend, 98 Ill. App. 3d at 443-44, 424 N.E.2d at 733; see also Mid-America Television Co. v. Peoria Housing Authority, 93 Ill. App. 3d 314, 319, 417 N.E.2d 210, 214 (1981) (explaining that "[w]here the order of the trial court is based on a misinterpretation of the applicable law, it must be concluded that the denial of a writ of mandamus *** was not based on a sound exercise of judicial discretion"). While we agree with the Overend and Mid-America courts that a misinterpretation of a statute is not an act of sound judicial discretion, we believe that a more exact statement of the law is that any interpretation of a statute or constitutional provision under which a petitioner seeks mandamus is not an act of discretion to which courts of review will defer. Indeed, a conclusion that a trial court has misinterpreted a statute or, for that matter, correctly interpreted a statute, necessarily involves a prefatorial statutory construction by the reviewing court. In such instances, the usual deferential standard applied in mandamus cases is extraneous and no recourse to it is required. Therefore, where a trial court's decision to deny or grant a petition for mandamus turns solely on the construction of a statute, which is a question of law, review is de novo. Cf. People v. Studio 20, Inc., 314 Ill. App. 3d 1000, 1004-05 733 N.E.2d 451, 454 (2000) (noting that although, generally, courts review the propriety of the trial court's grant of a preliminary injunction under an abuse of discretion standard, to the extent that the ruling was based on the trial court's construction of a statute, a reviewing court may resolve the issue as a matter of law using a de novo standard of review); Tim Thompson, Inc. v. Village of Hinsdale, 247 Ill. App. 3d 863, 871, 617 N.E.2d 1227, 1234 (1993) ("where the nonmoving party is under no obligation to prove its case, it logically follows that the standard of proof cannot be operative"); see also Medina v. Air-Mite Devices, Inc., 161 Ill. App. 3d 502, 509, 515 N.E.2d 770, 774 (1987) (noting that manifest weight of the evidence is supportive of a determination that has been made by the trier of fact, but it has no bearing on court's review of summary judgment).

II. The Public Safety Employee Benefits Act

We now consider whether plaintiff is clearly entitled to the continuation of health insurance coverage for himself and his family at the expense of defendant Village of Schaumburg, pursuant to the Act. Our analysis necessarily begins with the language of the statute. In re C.N., 196 Ill. 2d 181, 210, 752 ...

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