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Mitchell v. Village of Barrington

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Fourth Division

November 23, 2016

JODIE MITCHELL, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
VILLAGE OF BARRINGTON, an Illinois municipal corporation, Defendant-Appellee.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. 12 CH 34218 The Honorable David B. Atkins, Judge Presiding.

          JUSTICE HOWSE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices McBride and Burke concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          HOWSE JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 Plaintiff Jodie Mitchell was employed as a paramedic for defendant Village of Barrington. In 2007, Mitchell sustained an injury while on the job. The Village eventually determined that Mitchell's injury prevented her from being able to perform her duties and terminated her from that position. Mitchell later sought health care benefits under the Public Safety Employee Benefits Act (Act) (820 ILCS 320/1 et seq. (West 2012)), and the Village denied that request, finding she was not covered under the Act. Mitchell subsequently submitted a formal application for benefits under the Act, and her request was again denied. Mitchell filed this lawsuit, seeking benefits under the Act. The Village filed a motion for summary judgment and the trial court granted that motion finding Mitchell's claims were barred by the doctrine of laches. Mitchell now appeals the trial court's ruling on summary judgment.

         ¶ 2 Background

         ¶ 3 On January 21, 2007, Mitchell responded to a call-for-service at a residential home in Barrington by driving an ambulance. Upon exiting the ambulance, Mitchell slipped on a patch of ice and injured her back. Mitchell worked several of her following shift days, but then went on a medical leave of absence in April 2007.

         ¶ 4 The Village terminated Mitchell's employment in January 2008, issuing her termination letter on January 29, 2008. In the letter, the Village explained that "you are at maximum medical improvement, and it appears there will be no significant change in your medical condition in the foreseeable future." The letter went on to explain that because of Mitchell's "ongoing inability to perform [her] job duties, the Village of Barrington Board of Trustees at its January 28, 2008 Board Meeting acted on a motion authorizing and approving [her] separation from employment."

         ¶ 5 Mitchell disagreed that there would be no significant change in her medical condition and that the Village "jumped the gun" in terminating her, believing that she would have been able to come back to work soon.

         ¶ 6 After her termination, Mitchell sought health benefits under the Act (820 ILCS 320/1 et seq. (West 2012)). The Act provides for health benefits for firefighters who suffer catastrophic injuries in the line of duty. Section 10(a) of the Act states:

"An employer who employs a full-time law enforcement, correctional or correctional probation officer, or firefighter, who, on or after the effective date of this Act suffers a catastrophic injury or is killed in the line of duty shall pay the entire premium of the employer's health insurance plan for the injured employee, the injured employee's spouse, and for each dependent child of the injured employee until the child reaches the age of majority or until the end of the calendar year in which the child reaches the age of 25 if the child continues to be dependent for support or the child is a full-time or part-time student and is dependent for support." 820 ILCS 320/10(a) (West 2012).

         ¶ 7 To determine whether Mitchell is eligible for benefits under the Act, it is necessary to examine the history of Mitchell's employment with the Village. Mitchell was hired by the Village on August 1, 1988 as a "paramedic." At the time of that hire, Mitchell did not participate in any type of testing process administered by the Village's Board of Fire and Police Commissioners as that Board did not exist in 1988. At the time Mitchell was hired, she already possessed a "Firefighter II" certification from a prior employer. Mitchell was not required to have that certification for her paramedic position with the Village. When hired, Mitchell worked a traditional 24-hour on, 48-hour off schedule.

         ¶ 8 In 1994, the Village decided to convert its paramedic positions to full-time firefighters. Accordingly, the Village sent Mitchell and other paramedics a letter in March 1994 offering the paramedics an opportunity to become sworn full-time "Firefighters/Paramedics" who would be subject to appointments and promotions by the Village's Board of Fire and Police Commissioners. Among other things, the letter clarified that any paramedic that declined the offer "will continue to be classified as a Civilian Paramedic under the Village's Pay Plan with continuing participation in the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund." For personal reasons, Mitchell declined the Village's offer to become a sworn firefighter/paramedic and thus remained a civilian paramedic.

         ¶ 9 In June 1999, the Village's Manager sent Mitchell a letter explaining a potential staffing concern that had arisen due to the "two-in, two-out" respirator protection standards that had been promulgated by the U.S. Department of Labor. The letter also confirmed that Mitchell preferred to remain a civilian paramedic instead of becoming a full-time firefighter.

         ¶ 10 As a result of the Village's need to comply with the new "two-in, two-out" regulations and address Mitchell's desire to remain a paramedic with her same responsibilities and duties, the Village offered Mitchell the following arrangement:

"It has therefore been determined that you may continue as a paramedic working a 24/48 hour shift schedule and meet the requirements of the standard beyond September 1999 provided you are qualified to assist with fire suppression and related duties. The Village has determined that ...

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