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Gwendolyn R. Buckner v. the University Park Police Pension Fund

February 1, 2013

GWENDOLYN R. BUCKNER,
PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
THE UNIVERSITY PARK POLICE PENSION FUND, THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE UNIVERSITY PARK POLICE PENSION FUND,
THE MEMBERS OF THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE UNIVERSITY PARK POLICE PENSION FUND MARY DISTLER, GORDON SMITH, DANIEL MURPHY, AND THE VILLAGE OF UNIVERSITY PARK,
DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 12th Judicial Circuit, Will County, Illinois, Circuit No. 10-MR-1183 Honorable Barbara Petrungaro, Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice O'brien

JUSTICE O'BRIEN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

Justices Holdridge and Lytton concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

¶ 1 Plaintiff Gwendolyn Buckner brought this complaint for administrative review after the trial court affirmed the decision of defendants University Park Police Pension Fund; the Board of Trustees of the University Park Police Pension Fund; Mary Distler, Gordon Smith, and Daniel Murphy, the members of the Board of Trustees of the University Park Police Pension Fund; and the Village of University Park, denying her an on-duty disability pension and awarding her a not-on-duty disability pension. The trial court affirmed the Board's determination. She appealed. We affirm.

¶ 2 FACTS

¶ 3 Plaintiff Gwendolyn Buckner was hired as a police officer by defendant Village of University Park in October 1990. She became vested for benefits during her employment, including disability pension benefits from defendant University Park Police Pension Fund, which was administered by defendants Board of Trustees of the University Park Police Pension Fund (the Board) and its individual members, Mary Distler, Gordon Smith, and Daniel Murphy. In April 2001, Buckner suffered an injury to her back when she fell down stairs while evacuating a burning apartment building. She underwent lumbar fusion surgery, returning to duty in March 2002 in the investigations department. Shortly after her return, Buckner was assigned to the Cooperative Police Assistance Team (CPAT), a multi-jurisdictional special task force under the Illinois State Police (ISP) engaged in long-term, complex conspiracy investigations. In approximately May 2005, she returned to the investigations department at University Park. On April 28, 2006, Buckner sustained back injuries in an automobile accident that occurred when she was driving home after her shift had ended. She underwent a second back surgery in February 2007, after which her treating surgeon documented she was unable to physically perform her job as a police officer. In February 2008, Buckner filed an application for a on-duty disability pension.

¶ 4 An administrative hearing before the Board began in August 2009. Prior to the presentation of evidence, Buckner orally amended her application to include an alternative request for a not-on-duty disability pension. Buckner was also informed by the Board that three votes were required to confer disability benefits per the Open Meetings Act (5 ILCS 120/1.02 (West 2006)), and that because the Board at that time consisted of only three members, any decision in Buckner's favor would have to be unanimous.

¶ 5 Buckner testified. After her 2001 injury and return to work in 2002, she could not work as a patrol officer and was assigned to investigations. At that time, she had permanent restrictions of a 25-pound weight limit and a 1-hour duty vest limit. She brought her medical paperwork with her when she returned to work in March 2002 and her superiors at University Park and CPAT were aware of her restrictions. She performed full duty between March 2002 and April 2006, although her positions in investigations did not require her to exceed her medical restrictions. When the April 2006 accident occurred, she was driving home in a department-issued, unmarked squad car after her shift ended. She was provided the unmarked car because she was on call at all times. She was not responding to a police call when the accident took place.

¶ 6 Various exhibits were admitted into evidence, including Buckner's medical records which established that her recovery from the 2001 accident and surgery included return to work authorizations both with and without restrictions. Her surgeon stated her medical/work history as follows. From June 16, 2001 to March 7, 2002, Buckner could not work. Between March 7, 2002 and December 17, 2002, Buckner was released for work with restrictions: no lifting, pushing or pulling over 25 pounds and the ability to change positions as needed. An August 2002 office note indicated Buckner's 25-pound weight restriction was permanent. On December 17, 2002, Buckner was released with no restrictions. On December 11, 2003, Buckner was released with a permanent restriction that she could not wear a duty belt and a protective vest for "more than one hour together." In a December 2003 office note, her surgeon noted that Buckner was working full duty.

¶ 7 The opinions of three independent medical doctors who assessed her disability request per the Board's requirements were also admitted. William Malik, M.D., expressed that Buckner had "two significant injuries that occurred that accelerated" an "underlying degenerative lumbar disc disease" and made it symptomatic, identifying the 2001 and 2006 injuries. Thomas Gleason, M.D., opined that Buckner was disabled as a result of injuries sustained in the 2006 accident. Both Malik and Gleason certified Buckner as disabled. Charles Mercier, M.D., considered that Buckner was not disabled and could return to full-time unrestricted duty.

¶ 8 The hearing was continued to March 29, 2010. At that time, the Board again indicated that the three trustees present constituted a quorum. Detective Gary Reichenberger of the Will County sheriff's department investigations and former director of CPAT testified that he was not aware that Buckner had any medical restrictions and she would not have been a part of CPAT if she had medical restrictions. Village of University Park deputy police chief Gregory Box testified that as Buckner's supervisor, he would have been aware of any restrictions. However, he did not learn that Buckner had restrictions until shortly before her April 2006 accident when another patrol officer informed him that Buckner refused to work an overtime assignment because it would exceed her duty vest restriction. Buckner was asked to provide documentation of the restriction but failed to do so. There were no light duty assignments in the department.

ΒΆ 9 The hearing was continued and concluded with deliberations on April 30, 2010. The Board issued its finding in October 2010, denying Buckner's request for an on-duty disability pension but awarding her a not-on-duty disability pension. The Board found that she established a disability but did not establish that the disability resulted from or was aggravated by the performance of an act of duty. Buckner filed a ...


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