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Nuzzi v. Board of Trs. of Teachers' Ret. Sys.

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Fourth District

March 5, 2015

THOMAS NUZZI and DEBORAH NUZZI, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE TEACHERS' RETIREMENT SYSTEM OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS and THE TEACHERS' RETIREMENT SYSTEM OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, Defendants-Appellees

Page 1055

Appeal from Circuit Court of Sangamon County. No. 12MR824. Honorable John P. Schmidt, Judge Presiding.

Daniel M. Breen (argued) and Christopher J. Goril, both of Breen Goril Law, of Chicago, for appellants.

Ralph H. Loewenstein (argued), of Loewenstein, Hagen & Smith, P.C., of Springfield, for appellees.

JUSTICE KNECHT delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Presiding Justice Pope and Justice Holder White concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

Page 1056

KNECHT, J.

[¶1] Plaintiffs, Thomas Nuzzi and Deborah Nuzzi, are married to each other and are the former superintendent and former principal, respectively, at St. George Community Consolidated School District (St. George). In August and September 2008, Deborah and Thomas, respectively, were awarded disability benefits by the Teachers' Retirement System (TRS) based on their post-traumatic stress disorder. In March 2010, TRS began investigating plaintiffs' employment as adjunct web-based instructors at Olivet Nazarene University. In March 2010, TRS notified Thomas his right to receive disability benefits terminated on January 28, 2009, due to his employment and sought reimbursement of $46,959.91. In May 2010, TRS informed Deborah her right to receive disability benefits terminated February 2, 2009, due to her employment and demanded

Page 1057

reimbursement of $37,218.61. Plaintiffs appealed the TRS staff determination.

[¶2] In April 2012, a TRS claims-hearing committee (Hearing Committee) issued a written recommended decision upholding the TRS staff's determination plaintiffs were required to reimburse TRS. The Hearing Committee, quoting the statute, found plaintiffs lost their eligibility to continue receiving disability benefits because they " were both 'employed... in an equivalent capacity as a teacher in a ... private ... university' in derogation of [section] 16-149.2(a)" of the Illinois Pension Code (Pension Code) (40 ILCS 5/16-149.2(a) (West 2008)). In August 2012, the TRS Board of Trustees (TRS Board) voted to uphold the recommended decision of the Hearing Committee. Plaintiffs sought administrative review. In April 2013, the circuit court affirmed the TRS Board's decision.

[¶3] Plaintiffs appeal, asserting (1) the pertinent sections of the Pension Code are ambiguous and inconsistent; (2) section 16-149, not section 16-149.2, applies to this case; and (3) their employment at Olivet Nazarene University does not violate section 16-149(c).

[¶4] We affirm.

[¶5] I. BACKGROUND

[¶6] The facts in the underlying administrative matter are not in dispute. Plaintiffs are the former superintendent and former principal of St. George. In May 2004, Thomas signed a four-year employment contract, which ran from June 10, 2004, to June 30, 2008. Deborah entered into a written contract for the 2006-07 school year and in August 2007, she renewed her annual contract, which began on July 1, 2007, and ended June 30, 2008. As a result of their employment, plaintiffs participated in TRS.

[¶7] In February 2007, the Board of Education of St. George (School Board) became aware Thomas was paying Deborah more than the salary stated in her contract and was moving money between accounts to avoid detection. It also learned Thomas was submitting duplicate requests for reimbursement and submitted false attendance records to the Illinois State Board of Education. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Illinois State Police conducted an investigation but a criminal prosecution had not been initiated against plaintiffs.

[¶8] In August 2007, the School Board decided to hire an auditor to conduct a full audit of St. George's finances. Several School Board members were concerned because Thomas had not been able to provide adequate financial information. In September 2007, Thomas installed a key card security system, rendering the School Board members' old keys useless and cutting off their access to the school building when the building was closed. The School Board asked Thomas to provide key cards so School Board members could get into the building, but Thomas refused.

[¶9] Thomas had an ongoing dispute with the School Board regarding Thomas's request for the School Board to negotiate a new contract for him because his four-year contract expired on June 30, 2008. The School Board refused to include this item on the agenda until it understood the results of the audit. Ultimately, the findings in the audit report confirmed the School Board's belief Thomas was not competent to perform his duties as a superintendent.

[¶10] In January 2008, Thomas and the School Board agreed Thomas should go on paid administrative leave because the School Board had serious concerns about his performance. On January 7, 2008, Deborah attended a School Board meeting and suffered a " panic attack." On January 8, 2008, Deborah's doctor signed a letter stating Deborah was suffering from an " overwhelming stress reaction" and she

Page 1058

should not return to the workplace for at least four weeks.

[¶11] In a letter dated January 31, 2008, the School Board notified Thomas of its decision to not renew his contract. On April 3, 2008, the School Board notified Deborah of its decision to not renew her contract. Plaintiffs' contracts were due to expire June 30, 2008.

[¶12] During May and June 2008, plaintiffs filed applications to obtain nonoccupational disability benefits. Deborah's application stated she suffered from " severe anxiety," " panic attacks, migraines, inability to sleep, [and] inability to concentrate." Thomas claimed " psychological injury" as the nature of his disability. Dr. William Clark and Dr. Stuart Greenfield diagnosed Deborah and Thomas, respectively, as suffering from " clinical depression, generalized anxiety, and post[-]traumatic stress disorder." In a letter to TRS, Dr. Clark stated Thomas's symptoms " are acutely worsened by contact with teaching settings."

[¶13] In August 2008, TRS notified Deborah by letter she would begin receiving nonoccupational disability benefits under section 16-149 of the Pension Code (40 ILCS 5/16-149 (West 2008)) in the amount of $3,127.20 per month retroactive to February 16, 2008. In September 2008, TRS also granted Thomas nonoccupational disability benefits in the amount of $3,879.13 per month retroactive to July 1, 2008. TRS enclosed a pamphlet, " Brochure 36 Your Nonoccupational Disability ...


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