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Carrillo v. Park Ridge Firefighters' Pension Fund

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Fifth Division

February 14, 2014

KAREN CARRILLO, Plaintiff-Appellant,

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois. No. 12 CH 21406. Honorable Neil Cohen, Judge Presiding.



In proceedings on plaintiff's application for a duty-related disability based on degenerative arthritis of her left knee tat prevented her from performing her duties as a firefighter/paramedic, the Firefighters' Pension Board's decision to deny her application and award her a nonduty disability instead on the ground that her injury was due to her preexisting knee condition was upheld by the appellate court, since she failed to prove that an on-duty incident either caused or aggravated her preexisting condition and the Board's decision was not against the manifest weight of the evidence.

For APPELLANT: Thomas W. Duda, Law Offices of Thomas W. Duda, Arlington Heights, Illinois.

For APPELLEE: Carolyn Welch Clifford, Ericka J. Thomas and Ottosen Britz Kelly, Cooper Gilbert & Dinolfo, Naperville, IL.

JUSTICE TAYLOR delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Presiding Justice Gordon and Justice McBride concurred in the judgment and opinion.



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[¶1] Plaintiff, former firefighter/paramedic Karen Carrillo, age 40, sought disability benefits from the Board of Trustees of the

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Park Ridge Firefighters' Pension Fund (Board), based on degenerative arthritis of the left knee that rendered her unable to work. After holding a hearing on Carrillo's disability application, the Board concluded that Carrillo's injuries were due to a preexisting knee condition rather than any acts of duty. Accordingly, instead of awarding her duty-related disability, which would entitle her to a pension of 65% of her salary, the Board awarded her nonduty disability, which entitled her to a pension of only 50%. On administrative review, the circuit court upheld the Board's decision. Carrillo now appeals, contending that she is entitled to line-of-duty disability benefits. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.


[¶3] On May 18, 2011, Carrillo filed her disability pension application with the Board. She sought a line-of-duty pension pursuant to section 4-110 of the Illinois Pension Code (40 ILCS 5/4-110 (West 2012)), which provides that if a firefighter is permanently disabled as a result of injury " resulting from the performance of an act of duty or from the cumulative effects of acts of duty," the firefighter shall be entitled to a disability pension equal to 65% of the salary attached to her rank on the date she is removed from the payroll. In the alternative, Carrillo sought a nonduty pension under Pension Code section 4-111 (40 ILCS 5/4-111 (West 2012)), which provides that the pension for a firefighter whose disability does not result from the performance of an act of duty shall be equal to 50% of her salary.

[¶4] The Board held a hearing on Carrillo's disability application on March 12, 2012. Carrillo was the sole witness testifying at the hearing. Carrillo testified that she was hired by the city of Park Ridge as a firefighter/paramedic on February 14, 2000, and she continued working in that capacity until May 2011, when she went off duty due to severe pain in her left knee. She stated that her treating physician, orthopedic surgeon Dr. David Mochel, had told her that she would need a total knee replacement.

[¶5] Carrillo testified that prior to her employment with Park Ridge, she had undergone two arthroscopic surgeries to her left knee. The first surgery occurred in 1988, when she was 17, for a tear to her medial meniscus that she sustained while playing varsity basketball in high school. The second surgery occurred when she was 21, during her first intramural basketball season in college, for an injury to the medial compartment of her left knee. Both surgeries were due to pain that " started creeping up," rather than any distinct incident. Carrillo further testified that from 1996 until early 2000, she worked as an emergency medical technician and paramedic for Superior Ambulance. During that time, she did not experience any problems or require any treatment for her left knee.

[¶6] As noted, Carrillo began her employment with Park Ridge as a firefighter/paramedic on February 14, 2000. She testified that she passed the Park Ridge preemployment physical with no reservations as to her health. She then described her job duties as a firefighter/paramedic. In her capacity as a firefighter, on a regular basis, she would have to put on fire protection gear and a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) that weighed approximately 65 pounds. She would also have to advance a hose by herself or with another firefighter; when filled with water it could weigh over 100 pounds. She would frequently need to breach doors, walls, or ceilings from a crawling or a standing position. If she needed to go to the roof, she would carry a ladder weighing 50 to 80 pounds, plus a roof ladder weighing 20 pounds. As for her paramedic

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duties, she would have to carry various kinds of equipment, such as cardiac monitors weighing 20 pounds or bags weighing 30 pounds. She would also work with a partner to carry patients on cots, sometimes up and down stairs, and transfer them from cots to ambulance beds.

[¶7] Carrillo then testified about the events occurring during her employment with Park Ridge that she alleged led to her current disability. She stated that in January 2002, while she was performing her paramedic duties, she stepped out of an ambulance and felt " a lot of pain" in her left knee. She subsequently received medical care from orthopedic specialist Dr. Matthew Gimre and Dr. Mochel. Right after the injury, she missed a couple of days of work, but after that, she continued working as a firefighter/paramedic. On October 15, 2002, she had arthroscopic surgery performed on her left knee by Dr. Asselmeier, a physician within her HMO group. The surgery caused Carrillo to miss two or three months of work before returning to work in December or January. The pain in her knee prevented her from doing long distance running or full court basketball, but she was still able to perform her duties as a firefighter/paramedic.

[¶8] Carrillo stated that a second injury incident happened in July 2005, when she was helping to lift a patient's cot into the back of an ambulance. She stated that the patient's caretaker stepped up to enter the ambulance, and the rear step of the ambulance " was slammed down onto [her] left knee," causing her severe pain. Carrillo filled out an injury report for the incident but did not seek medical attention.

[¶9] Carrillo filed a third injury report on March 26, 2006. On that day, she was carrying a patient on a stretcher. The patient weighed approximately 200 pounds. Carrillo was at the foot of the stretcher, walking backwards. When trying to ascend a flight of four or five steps, Carrillo twisted her knee and was unable to complete the lift due to pain. She stated that she was not able to finish her shift. Instead, she obtained medical treatment and stayed off duty for several shifts afterwards.

[¶10] After that incident, Carrillo testified that she returned to work as a firefighter/paramedic until May 2011. She stated that from January to May of 2011, she started having increasing pain in her left knee. In May 2011, she was sent to deal with a garage fire. The ambulance was parked approximately half a block away from the fire scene, and when Carrillo put on her fire protection gear and SCBA, she had difficulty walking the half-block to the fire. She was also unable to kneel on her left knee so that she could crawl into the garage to advance the hose. " And at that time," she said, " I felt that I not only was hurting myself but I was going to hurt somebody else also." She stated that she did not experience any specific injury on that date; rather, that was the point where her ongoing symptoms became intolerable.

[¶11] Carrillo stated that she was examined by a doctor and obtained a light-duty slip. Initially she did not give the slip to the city, but continued working as normal, because she felt that her knee might get better. Eventually she gave the light-duty slip to her chief on May 17, 2011. She requested light duty, but she was told there was no light duty ...

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