KIM L. EDWARDS, Plaintiff-Appellant,
THE ADDISON FIRE PROTECTION DISTRICT FIREFIGHTERS' PENSION FUND, THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE ADDISON FIRE PROTECTION DISTRICT FIREFIGHTERS' PENSION FUND, and THE ADDISON FIRE PROTECTION DISTRICT, Defendants-Appellees.
Appeal from the Circuit Court of Du Page County. No. 12-MR-162 Honorable Bonnie M. Wheaton, Judge, Presiding.
Justices Schostok and Spence concurred in the judgment and opinion.
¶ 1 Plaintiff, Kim L. Edwards, appeals from the trial court's orders: (1) denying her motion to consolidate this case with another pending case, before a single judge; and (2) denying her complaint for administrative review and affirming the decision of defendant the Board of Trustees of the Addison Fire Protection District Firefighters' Pension Fund (Board). We affirm.
¶ 2 I. BACKGROUND
¶ 3 Edwards was employed as a firefighter/paramedic for defendant the Addison Fire Protection District (District). In July 2008, Edwards sent a memorandum to Captain Roy Charvat, in which she reported the "increasing severity" of reactions that she had been having to the latex gloves that were carried on the District's Fire apparatuses; in light of these reactions, she recommended that the District move to the use of nonlatex nitrile gloves, which she wore, for all duty personnel. Lieutenant Mike Toika, to whom Edwards had previously spoken about her increasing latex reactions, investigated the equipment in the District's ambulances to identify the items that contained latex. In a memorandum to Charvat, Toika explained:
"The biggest issue, at this time, is the gloves. The sensitivity issue with Kim is increasing, and while benedryl [sic] does help, she really doesn't want to be using it that much here. So any help you can give, in at least getting [the] department to purchase nitrile gloves only would be greatly appreciated."
¶ 4 Edwards continued working her scheduled shifts until September 11, 2008, when she received a telephone call from Leigh Fabbri, the District's fire chief, who informed her that she could not return to work until the latex situation had been resolved. The District then sent Edwards for three independent medical evaluations concerning her latex allergy. The evaluations were performed in September, October, and December 2008.
¶ 5 On October 16, 2008, Edwards filed with the Illinois Department of Human Rights a charge of discrimination against the District. Edwards alleged that she had a physical disability as defined in section 1-103(I) of the Illinois Human Rights Act (Act) (775 ILCS 5/1-103(I) (West 2008)), that the District was aware of her disability, and that the disability was unrelated to her ability to perform the essential functions of her job "with or without a reasonable accommodation."
¶ 6 In a letter dated December 16, 2008, Chief Fabbri notified Edwards that the District had "no option but to seek your termination." According to Fabbri, the reports from the independent medical evaluations "have made it clear that any exposure to latex constitutes a risk to the well-being of people under your care, your well-being, and other responders who may need to be re-directed to intervene to counteract a reaction you may experience." The opinion of the doctors involved was that Edwards "cannot return to duty as a firefighter/paramedic." The District considered whether any positions that could ensure no contact were available, but it had "no such openings at this time." Fabbri relayed that the District would file charges with the board of fire commissioners, which would hold a hearing. However, the District was "open to discussing alternate methods" of Edwards' separation from the District, including "application for a disability pension or resignation." No charges were filed with the board of fire commissioners.
¶ 7 In January 2009, Edwards filed with defendant the Addison Fire Protection District Firefighters' Pension Fund (Fund) an application for disability pension benefits, claiming a line-of-duty disability pursuant to section 4-110 of the Illinois Pension Code (Code) (40 ILCS 5/4-110 (West 2008)). In her application, Edwards described her disability as "Latex allergy worsening over the past two years due to exposure at Addison Fire Dept." She also described the cause of her illness as "Repeated exposure to latex through the latex gloves that were being used on the AFD's ambulances/engines." Hearings on Edwards' application were held in November 2009 and September 2011 before the Board. On January 3, 2012, the Board issued a 27-page decision and order in which it found that Edwards had failed to prove "that she incurred a 'sickness' that rendered her 'permanently disabled' within the meaning of the Pension Code." Thus, the Board concluded that Edwards was not entitled to a "line of duty" disability pension and, therefore, denied her claim.
¶ 8 On February 3, 2012, Edwards filed a complaint for administrative review, praying for the trial court to reverse the Board's decision and order the Board to pay her line-of-duty benefits. In March, Edwards filed a motion for consolidation, seeking to consolidate the administrative review case and a civil cause of action, pending before another judge in Du Page County, that arose from Edwards' discrimination claim before the Department of Human Rights. The trial court denied the motion. Following briefing and arguments, the trial court concluded that the Board's decision to deny benefits was "not against the manifest weight of the evidence and was not clearly erroneous." Therefore, the trial court affirmed the Board's decision and denied Edwards' complaint for administrative review. This appeal followed.
¶ 9 II. EVIDENCE
¶ 10 Edwards testified before the Board that she was told by her family physician in 1999 that latex "may be the cause" of the rashes that she experienced after wearing Band-Aids. She did not undergo any testing until she was given a preemployment health screening in 2000 at Northwest Community Hospital. A radioallergosorbent (RAST) blood test confirmed her allergy. She then worked as a patient-care technician in the pediatric emergency room at Northwest Community, which was latex-free, and experienced no allergy problems. She later worked as a firefighter/paramedic for the Village of Hanover Park and, concurrently for a period, for a private ambulance service. Both employers were made aware of her latex allergy, and both provided her with nonlatex nitrile gloves. However, coworkers were not required to wear nonlatex gloves. She did not miss any time from work at either employer because of her allergy.
¶ 11 Edwards began her employment with the District in July 2004. Her duties with the District included emergency medical care and response to 911 calls as well as fire suppression duties. She advised the District of her allergy at that time, but "[i]t was not discussed any further." The District provided her with nitrile gloves, but most of her coworkers wore latex gloves, and all of the District's vehicles and apparatuses carried latex gloves. She had no problems with her allergy until May or June 2008, when she began having both increased contact reactions, in the form of hives, and respiratory reactions, which she had never before experienced, after contact with latex. After she brought this to the attention of Toika and Charvat in July 2008, she heard nothing more until September 11, 2008, when Fabbri notified her that she was not allowed to return to work. Until that date, she did not miss any time from work because of her allergy. She scheduled an appointment with Dr. Priya Bansal, an allergist who had been treating her, and ...