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Coyne v. Milan Police Pension Board

April 13, 2004

[5] LARRY COYNE, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
MILAN POLICE PENSION BOARD, BY ITS PRESIDENT, SERGEANT DAVID JONES, AND VILLAGE OF MILAN, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



[6] Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 14th Judicial Circuit Rock Island County, Illinois No. 99--MR--53 Honorable Lori R. Lefstein Judge, Presiding

[7] The opinion of the court was delivered by: Presiding Justice Holdridge

[8]  Appellant, Larry Coyne, worked as a police officer in the Milan Police Department until November of 1995. In March of 1996 he filed an application with the Milan Police Pension Board (the Board) requesting a line-of-duty disability pension (40 ILCS 5/3--114.1 (West 1996)), or alternatively, a non-duty disability pension (40 ILCS 5/3--114.2 (West 1996)). The Board denied both requests, and the Rock Island County circuit court affirmed the Board's decision. Coyne then filed this appeal. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings.

[9]  BACKGROUND

[10]   In 1990 Coyne submitted to a psychological evaluation by Doctor Rip O'Keefe to determine his fitness for a promotion to the rank of police sergeant. Doctor O'Keefe indicated that, from a psychological standpoint, Coyne was sound and suffered no impediments that would hinder his performance as a sergeant. Coyne received the promotion.

[11]   After he filed his application for pension benefits, the Village of Milan (the Village) petitioned to intervene in the proceedings. The Village cited two bases for intervention: an interest in the expenditure of its pension funds; and a similarity between the facts of Coyne's claim and the facts of a pending grievance filed by the police union on his behalf. The Village's petition to intervene was granted.

[12]   The pension hearing occurred in June of 1998. At the outset of the hearing, Coyne's counsel raised a conflict-of-interest issue because two of the Board's members held other positions with the Village. The challenged board members were Don Wall (village trustee) and Barbara Lee (elected village clerk). Counsel asked Wall and Lee to recuse themselves, stating that he was not questioning their impartiality but merely asserting a "legal question" he felt obligated to raise. Ensuing discussions revealed that Wall had voting power on the Village's taxing authority the Village used to generate pension funds; however, Lee had no financial decision-making power for the Village. Wall voluntarily recused himself, but Lee declined to step down.

[13]   In response to pointed questioning, Lee affirmed that: she was capable of rendering a fair and impartial decision based solely on the evidence presented at the hearing; she harbored no preconceived notions and had not judged the case beforehand; and her position as village clerk, in combination with the Village's status as an intervenor, would not influence her decision in any way. The Village's attorney advised that the Board had no authority to disqualify Lee from service. Although Coyne's counsel persisted in his conflict-of-interest objection, he agreed to proceed with Lee on the Board. Counsel again explained that his objection was not directed at Lee personally; rather, he believed recusal was appropriate "just by [her] position."

[14]   The first witness to testify at the hearing was Dennis Baraks, Chief of Police in the Milan Police Department. Baraks said Coyne's job performance began declining in late 1994 or early 1995. Before that time, Coyne exhibited no problems and performed above-average work. The first sign of problems occurred when Baraks requested an explanation for Coyne's excessive speed while driving his squad car. According to department records, Coyne was responsible for 80% of the instances where an officer drove above 80 miles per hour. Upon receiving the request, Coyne "charged into [Baraks'] office" and claimed he deserved special consideration because he performed the most work in the department. Baraks acknowledged that Coyne had been "very active" on the police force and was extremely dependable in high-stress situations. However, after their confrontation on the speeding issue, Coyne became sullen, unreceptive to personal conversation, vindictive, and hostile.

[15]   In May of 1995 Baraks wrote a letter to Coyne expressing concern about his psychological fitness to perform police work. Baraks advised that Coyne's conduct was inappropriate and that he would be sent for a psychological evaluation if the conduct continued. The conduct did continue, and Baraks wrote another letter warning Coyne of a possible suspension or psychological review. In October of 1995 Baraks wrote a third letter advising Coyne: "[F]or the past year your conduct has been irrational." He noted that Coyne was performing his duties at a fraction of his ability.

[16]   Baraks testified that as of November, 1995, he did not believe Coyne was fit for police duty. His primary concern was not how Coyne would perform in the field, but rather the negative effect Coyne's presence would have on the department internally.

[17]   Coyne was the only other witness to testify at the hearing. He said he suffered psychological impairment from being traumatized by several incidents at work. During one of the incidents, a drunk driver ran a red light in May of 1994 and hit the driver's door of Coyne's car. Coyne missed work for three months while recovering from injuries he sustained in the accident. During a second incident, an 18-year old boy brandished a knife in March of 1995 and struggled with Coyne while trying to disarm his holstered service weapon. Realizing that his job could have required killing a teenager, Coyne became convinced that he was incapable of appropriately responding to violent acts (especially discharging his firearm). From that point on, he worked with no ammunition in his firearm. During a third incident, Coyne responded to a motor vehicle accident in November of 1995 where he crawled into an overturned car to assist a trapped motorist. He said the experience caused a flashback to his own accident with the drunk driver. While rescuing the motorist, he experienced extreme claustrophobia and had serious difficulty staying inside the overturned car.

[18]   In addition to these incidents, Coyne described several other traumatic experiences including a canoe accident where two persons drowned, several suicides, and a motorcycle accident where a young man was killed. Coyne was good friends with the parents of the young man who died in the motorcycle accident. He tried to perform CPR at the scene, but on the first compression his hand broke through the young man's chest.

[19]   After the incident with the trapped motorist, Coyne went home and wrote a suicide note, laid out his funeral clothes, sat in the bathtub, and nearly shot himself while holding a loaded gun in his mouth. The next day he sought help from Doctor O'Keefe. He chose Doctor O'Keefe's office because the department had sent him there in 1990 for his sergeant's evaluation. The doctor suggested in-patient mental health treatment, but Coyne refused to be committed and instead commenced a course of outpatient treatment. He did not return to work.

[20]   Coyne testified that when he left active duty he was depressed and felt like everyone was "out to get [him]." He described himself as "a time bomb waiting to go off." His symptoms included sleeplessness, nightmares, inattentiveness, uncontrolled anger, a fluctuating appetite, loss of energy, and paranoid thoughts. He said his nightmares often involved replays of "ugly calls" and prior traumatic events on the job. Other dreams involved situations where he had to defend himself against an oncoming assailant. Sometimes in those dreams he could not pull the trigger on his weapon; other times he pulled the trigger and then reached out to grab the bullet because he wanted it back.

[21]   According to Coyne, Doctor O'Keefe saved his life by helping him gain enough control to prevent him from harming himself or others. In addition to Doctor O'Keefe's psychological treatment, Coyne also received psychiatric treatment from Doctor G. Narayan. Both doctors advised him to leave police work and find a job where he could keep busy with accomplishable tasks. Accordingly, he acquired a truck and began driving as an independent contractor. He said truck driving satisfied the doctors' recommendation because it did not involve public interaction or high pressure. He simply picked up loads and dropped them off without any employee-supervisor relationship.

[22]   Coyne testified that he needed additional treatment from Doctor O'Keefe but could not afford it. He was $70,000 in debt from starting his trucking business, and the business was just breaking even. Additionally, his health insurance through the Village only covered 50% of the bills from his mental health treatment. He already had an outstanding balance of $2,500 to $3,000 with Doctor O'Keefe.

[23]   Coyne testified that his last visit to Doctor O'Keefe was sometime in 1997, and that he treated with Doctor Narayan through late 1997 or early 1998. He said he followed all the instructions the doctors gave him, and he was still taking prescription medication. Sometimes, however, he did not take his medication because it made him feel "real blah." He said he was not capable of performing police work because he could not respond appropriately to stressful and violent situations.

[24]   In addition to written records from Doctors O'Keefe and Narayan, the evidence included records from three doctors appointed by the Board to evaluate Coyne. The doctors were Henry Conroe, Jonathan Kelly, and Richard Harris. The evidence also included a report from Doctor Eric Ostrov, whom Coyne visited on a referral from Doctor Kelly.

[25]   Doctor O'Keefe's records show that Coyne drafted three memoranda outlining numerous events leading to his psychological disability. The events ranged from disagreements with Chief Baraks to incidents where Coyne witnessed deaths. In January of 1996 Doctor O'Keefe wrote: "It is my opinion that Sgt. Coyne is currently unable to function as a police officer. He poses a significant risk to himself and to the well being of others. He is placed on medical leave from his employment as a police officer due to job related stress factors. I believe the Milan Police Department should proceed to evaluate Sgt. Coyne for a job related disability retirement." Doctor O'Keefe's ultimate diagnosis was post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from "a series of work-related stressors" causing Coyne to "progressively deteriorate[] from his ability to do police work." The doctor advised that in all likelihood Coyne would never be able to resume such work.

[26]   Doctor Narayan also diagnosed Coyne with post-traumatic stress disorder and said: "[i]t is further advisable that he can not return to his duties as a police officer [because] the renewed stress could be detrimental to his safety and the safety of other people." Commenting on the cause of Coyne's disorder, Doctor Narayan observed: "Mr. Coyne has gone through significant traumatic experiences through out [sic] ten years as a police officer."

[27]   Doctor Conroe diagnosed Coyne with major depressive disorder, describing his condition as "the cumulative effect of witnessing and experiencing events involving death, the threat of death or serious injury." The doctor further stated that Coyne could not control his emotions and judgment sufficiently to work as a police officer.

[28]   Doctor Kelly diagnosed Coyne with major depression, describing his condition as a "response to traumatic incidents he was exposed to on his job as a policeman." According to the doctor, Coyne was psychiatrically disabled from working as a police officer, but with proper treatment he could overcome his depression and resume such work.

[29]   Doctor Ostrov diagnosed major depression and stated that Coyne could not work as a police officer.

[30]   Doctor Harris opined that Coyne did not suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and was not disabled from performing police work. In rendering this opinion, the doctor made multiple references to a conversation he had with Doctor O'Keefe. Doctor Harris' written report reads: "Sgt. Coyne does not have a severe impairment rendering him unable to perform the duties of a police officer. He had an acute problem which was treated quickly and successfully. He currently has no signs of the symptoms necessitating treatment in November 1995. His acute disorder was largely a function of long-standing problems in interpersonal relationships stimulated by the not infrequent, volatile quality of the manager-managee relationship."

[31]   Doctor O'Keefe reviewed Doctor Harris' report and responded with a letter reiterating his position that, "based upon many hours of treatment of Sgt. Coyne, *** he is disabled from police work and [the disability] is *** work-related." Doctor O'Keefe stated that Doctor Harris "misse[d] the point" and "went out of his way to focus only on that information that proved his conclusion." He also said Doctor Harris reported their conversation accurately but not completely. In particular, Doctor Harris omitted Doctor O'Keefe's firm position that Coyne is disabled as a result of work-related activities, and that the disability is complete and likely permanent.

[32]   Coyne testified that Doctor Harris was arrogant and obnoxious, and that they "didn't hit it off" during his evaluation. He said they spent little time discussing his work-related incidents because the doctor's questions did not elicit that information. Rather, according to Coyne, Doctor Harris spent most of his time asking about sex (Coyne's sex life and the sex lives of his co-workers).

[33]   After considering the foregoing evidence, the Board denied Coyne's pension application. The Board specifically found that Coyne failed to prove: a disability rendering him incapable of performing police work (a necessary element for both a line-of-duty and a non-duty pension), and a disabling condition resulting from an act of police duty (necessary for a line-of-duty pension). Additionally, the Board found two bases for denying pension benefits even if Coyne had satisfied the necessary elements: his purported refusal to undergo reasonable medical treatment, and a lack of unanimity among the three board-appointed doctors regarding whether he was disabled from performing police work.

[34]   On administrative review, a judge from the Rock Island County circuit court upheld two of the Board's findings: that Coyne failed to prove a disabling condition resulting from an act of police duty, and that he refused to undergo reasonable medical treatment. Accordingly, the judge affirmed the Board's ...


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