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Bremer v. The City of Rockford

Supreme Court of Illinois

December 30, 2016

WILLIAM BREMER, Appellant and Cross-Appellee,
v.
THE CITY OF ROCKFORD, Appellee and Cross-Appellant.

          JUSTICE THOMAS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Chief Justice Karmeier and Justices Freeman, Garman, Burke, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          THOMAS JUSTICE.

         ¶ 1 In Krohe v. City of Bloomington, 204 Ill.2d 392 (2003), this court held that the phrase "catastrophic injury" in section 10(a) of the Public Safety Employee Benefits Act (Benefits Act) (820 ILCS 320/10(a) (West 2008)) is synonymous with an injury resulting in a line-of-duty disability pension under section 4-110 of the Illinois Pension Code (Pension Code) (40 ILCS 5/4-110 (West 2008)). The primary issue in this case is whether the phrase "catastrophic injury" in section 10(a) is also synonymous with an injury resulting in an occupational disease disability pension under section 4-110.1 of the Pension Code (40 ILCS 5/4-110.1 (West 2008)). Based on our decision in Krohe and subsequent cases defining "catastrophic injury, " we hold that the legislature did not intend for that phrase to be synonymous with a disease resulting in the award of an occupational disease disability pension.

         ¶ 2 I. BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 Defendant, the City of Rockford, hired plaintiff, William Bremer, as a firefighter in 1976. In 2004, plaintiff filed with the City of Rockford Firefighters' Pension Board (Board) an application for an occupational disease disability pension under section 4-110.1 of the Pension Code (40 ILCS 5/4-110.1 (West 2004)). The Board granted plaintiff's application, concluding that he satisfied the statutory requirements for an occupational disease disability pension by establishing that he was a firefighter with five or more years of creditable service who was unable to perform his duties due to heart disease resulting from his service as a firefighter. The Board found that a preponderance of the medical evidence established that plaintiff's cardiomyopathy resulted from the performance of his duties as a firefighter. Plaintiff's pension became effective in January 2005.

         ¶ 4 Defendant paid health insurance premiums for plaintiff and his wife through February 2008, as required by a city ordinance. On February 21, 2008, defendant informed plaintiff that it would no longer pay the premiums as of March 1, 2008, and that plaintiff would be required to pay the premiums if he wished to maintain the benefits.

         ¶ 5 Plaintiff then applied to defendant for continuing health insurance benefits under section 10 of the Benefits Act. Section 10 provides premium-free health insurance benefits for a public safety employee, his or her spouse, and any dependent children, when the employee is catastrophically injured or killed in the line of duty under the circumstances listed in section 10(b). 820 ILCS 320/10 (West 2008). Along with his application, plaintiff submitted a copy of the Board's decision awarding him an occupational disease disability pension. Defendant determined that plaintiff did not establish that he suffered a catastrophic injury as required by section 10(a) of the Benefits Act (820 ILCS 320/10(a) (West 2008)), based on his receipt of an occupational disease disability pension. Accordingly, defendant denied plaintiff's application for continuing health insurance benefits.

         ¶ 6 Plaintiff responded by filing a two-count complaint in the Winnebago County circuit court, seeking a declaratory judgment and attorney fees. In count I, plaintiff sought a declaration on the meaning of the term "catastrophic injury" in section 10(a) of the Benefits Act. Plaintiff asked the court to declare that the award of an occupational disease disability pension under section 4-110.1 of the Pension Code establishes a catastrophic injury within the meaning of section 10(a). Plaintiff also sought a declaration that defendant was required to pay his future health insurance premiums and to reimburse him for any premiums he paid in 2008. In count II, plaintiff sought attorney fees and costs under the Attorneys Fees in Wage Actions Act (Wage Actions Act) (705 ILCS 225/0.01 et seq. (West 2008)).

         ¶ 7 The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment on count I. The circuit court determined that plaintiff was entitled to continuing health insurance benefits under section 10 of the Benefits Act based on his award of an occupational disease disability pension under section 4-110.1 of the Pension Code. The circuit court, therefore, granted plaintiff's motion for summary judgment on count I, denied defendant's motion for summary judgment, ordered defendant to reinstate plaintiff's health care benefits, and directed defendant to reimburse plaintiff for the premiums he paid after defendant denied his application for benefits.

         ¶ 8 The circuit court subsequently granted defendant's motion for summary judgment on count II. The circuit court held that plaintiff's postemployment health insurance benefits under the Benefits Act do not constitute "wages earned and due and owing according to the terms of the employment, " as required to recover attorney fees under the Wage Actions Act.

         ¶ 9 The circuit court also granted plaintiff's motion for leave to add a third count to his complaint. In count III, plaintiff alleged that he could not afford health insurance during the period when defendant declined to pay his insurance premiums. Plaintiff sought reimbursement for over $39, 000 in medical expenses that he and his wife incurred while they were uninsured. Plaintiff also sought over $38, 000 for the premiums defendant failed to pay, alleging that he was deprived of the value of those premiums and that defendant was unjustly enriched by not paying them.

         ¶ 10 Defendant filed a combined motion to dismiss count III under sections 2-615 and 2-619 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-615, 2-619 (West 2008)). The circuit court granted defendant's section 2-615 motion to dismiss plaintiff's claim for unpaid premiums. The circuit court also dismissed plaintiff's claim for approximately $36, 000 in medical expenses under section 2-619. Those expenses were incurred as a result of an automobile accident involving plaintiff's wife, and they were paid under plaintiff's automobile insurance policy. The circuit court determined plaintiff lacked standing to seek recovery of those expenses under the Rights of Married Persons Act (750 ILCS 65/15 (West 2008)). The circuit court, however, entered judgment for plaintiff in the amount of $6, 381.05 plus court costs for health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket medical expenses paid by plaintiff.

         ¶ 11 Defendant appealed the circuit court's award of summary judgment for plaintiff on count I. Plaintiff filed a cross-appeal challenging the award of summary judgment for defendant on count II and the dismissal of portions of count III.

         ¶ 12 The appellate court held that the circuit court erred in granting summary judgment for plaintiff on count I. The appellate court agreed with the circuit court the "catastrophic injury" requirement in section 10(a) of the Benefits Act was satisfied by the award of an occupational disease disability pension under section 4-110.1 of the Pension Code, but held that there was a question of material fact on the section 10(b) element of whether plaintiff's injury resulted from his response to what was reasonably believed to be an emergency. 2015 IL App (2d) 130920, ¶ 45. That question of material fact precluded summary judgment for plaintiff on his claim for continuing health insurance benefits under section 10 of the Benefits Act. 2015 IL App (2d) 130920, ¶ 55.

         ¶ 13 The appellate court agreed with the circuit court that plaintiff could not recover attorney fees under the Wage Actions Act because postemployment health insurance benefits under the Benefits Act do not qualify as "wages earned and due and owing according to the terms of the employment." 705 ILCS 225/1 (West 2008). 2015 IL App (2d) 130920, ¶ 59. Defendant therefore was entitled to summary judgment on count II because plaintiff could not prevail on his Wage Actions Act claim even if he were to receive continuing health insurance benefits under the Benefits Act. 2015 IL App (2d) 130920, ¶ 60. The appellate court further held that plaintiff's claim in count III for unpaid health insurance premiums and medical expenses was not ripe for adjudication given the reversal of the circuit court's judgment requiring defendant to pay plaintiff's health insurance premiums under the Benefits Act. Therefore, the circuit court's judgment on count III was vacated. 2015 IL App (2d) 130920, ¶ 62.

         ¶ 14 Justice McLaren dissented from the judgment on the Benefits Act claim, asserting that the award of an occupational disease disability pension is not sufficient to satisfy the "catastrophic injury" element of section 10(a). 2015 IL App (2d) 130920, ¶¶ 71-73 (McLaren, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). Justice McLaren concluded that defendant was entitled to summary judgment because in the absence of any medical evidence, there was no genuine issue of material fact on whether plaintiff suffered a catastrophic injury. 2015 IL App (2d) 130920, ¶ 76 (McLaren, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).

         ¶ 15 We allowed petitions for leave to appeal filed by both plaintiff and defendant (Ill. S.Ct. R. 315 (eff. Jan. 1, 2015)), and consolidated the appeals for review. We also allowed the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association to file ...


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