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Sottos v. The Firefighters' Pension Fund of City of Moline

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Third District

November 3, 2017

JERRY SOTTOS, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
THE FIREFIGHTERS' PENSION FUND OF THE CITY OF MOLINE, THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE FIREFIGHTERS' PENSION FUND OF THE CITY OF MOLINE AND ITS MEMBERS, PRESIDENT/TRUSTEE BRIAN VYNCKE, SECRETARY/TRUSTEE MIKE RASCHE, TRUSTEE KATHLEEN CARR, TRUSTEE SCOTT RAES, and THE CITY OF MOLINE, Defendants (The Firefighters' Pension Fund of the City of Moline and the Board of Trustees of the Firefighters' Pension Fund of the City of Moline, Defendants-Appellants).

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 14th Judicial Circuit No. 14-MR-880, Rock Island County, Illinois. The Honorable Lori R. Lefstein, Judge, presiding.

          JUSTICE CARTER delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Presiding Justice Holdridge and Justice O'Brien concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          CARTER, JUSTICE.

         ¶ 1 Plaintiff, firefighter Jerry Sottos, filed a complaint in the trial court for administrative review of an amended decision of defendant, the Board of Trustees of the Firefighters' Pension Fund of the City of Moline (Board), [1] granting plaintiff monthly line-of-duty disability pension benefits in a certain specified amount. Upon administrative review, the trial court reversed the Board's amended decision and reinstated a prior decision of the Board, which had set plaintiff's monthly benefit amount at a higher level. The Board appeals. We affirm the trial court's judgment, reverse the amended decision of the Board, and reinstate the Board's original decision.

         ¶ 2 FACTS

         ¶ 3 Plaintiff was a firefighter for the city of Moline (City) for several years, starting in May 2000. At various times over the course of his career, plaintiff injured or reinjured his lower back while working in his capacity as a firefighter for the City. Plaintiff went through various stages of treatment and eventually had two lumbar-fusion surgeries performed-the first in April 2010 and the second in March 2012. In September 2012, plaintiff's neurosurgeon recommended that plaintiff not return to work as a firefighter. Plaintiff later filed for a line-of-duty disability pension.

         ¶ 4 In July 2014, an administrative hearing was held before the Board on plaintiff's line-of- duty disability pension request. At the hearing, plaintiff testified as to many of the background facts set forth above and numerous documentary exhibits were presented. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Board voted to grant plaintiff line-of-duty disability pension benefits. A written decision to that effect was later entered by the Board. In that decision, the Board found that plaintiff's last date on the payroll of the City was March 7, 2014; that the salary attached to plaintiff's rank on that date was $75, 674.93; and that the amount of the monthly disability pension benefit to which plaintiff was entitled was $4099.06 (65% of the monthly salary attached to plaintiff's rank).

         ¶ 5 The following month, on its own motion, the Board set a hearing date for it to reconsider its previous ruling on plaintiff's application for line-of-duty disability pension benefits. The hearing was held in September 2014. Plaintiff was present for, and participated in, the hearing with his attorney. During the hearing, the City's human resources manager, Alison Fleming, was called to testify by the Board.

         ¶ 6 Fleming's testimony can be summarized as follows. Prior to February 27, 2013, plaintiff's annual salary attached to his rank was $72, 204. In February 2013, plaintiff received an anniversary increase, which increased plaintiff's annual salary to $73, 829.32. Plaintiff received full pay from the City pursuant to the Public Employee Disability Act (Disability Act) (5 ILCS 345/0.01 et seq. (West 2012)) through March 8, 2013. Pension contributions were withheld from those payments. After the Disability Act payments ended, plaintiff began receiving temporary total disability (TTD) workers' compensation benefits from the City. The amount of the workers' compensation payment that plaintiff received was based upon his February 2013 salary. In June 2013, plaintiff received a lump-sum payment from the City for accrued sick leave. A pension contribution was withheld from that payment. In May 2013, the City stopped withholding pension fund contributions from payments made to plaintiff. In January 2014, the City instituted a general wage increase for city firefighters, pursuant to the terms of a collective bargaining agreement. Had plaintiff been eligible for that wage increase, his annual salary would have increased to $75, 674.93. However, plaintiff did not receive that general wage increase, nor did he make pension contributions based on that increased annual salary. Plaintiff received workers' compensation benefits from the City until a date in February 2014, when plaintiff's workers' compensation settlement contract was approved. In March 2014, plaintiff was paid a lump-sum payment by the City for all of his accumulated vacation and compensatory time. The amount of that lump-sum payment was calculated based upon the new higher salary level of $75, 674.93.

         ¶ 7 During the hearing, following the presentation of evidence, the Board went into closed executive session to discuss the matter. After reconvening, the Board announced its decision. The Board entered an amended written order, which had already been prepared, reducing the amount of plaintiff's monthly line-of-duty disability pension benefit to $3999.09. In the amended decision, the Board found that plaintiff's last day on the city's payroll was March 8, 2013; that plaintiff's salary at the time was $73, 829.32; and that any excess pension contributions taken after March 8, 2013, should be refunded to plaintiff. The written ruling did not state, however, why the Board had decided to reconsider and change its prior ruling.

         ¶ 8 In October 2014, plaintiff filed a complaint in the trial court for administrative review of the Board's amended decision. A hearing was held on the complaint in July 2016. By the time of the hearing, the matter had been fully briefed by the parties in the trial court. After listening to the arguments of the attorneys, the trial court agreed with plaintiff, reversed the Board's amended decision, and reinstated the Board's original decision as to the amount that plaintiff would receive as his monthly line-of-duty disability pension benefit. The Board appealed.

         ¶ 9 ANALYSIS

         ¶ 10 On appeal, the Board argues that the trial court erred in administrative review when it reversed the Board's amended decision and reinstated the Board's original decision as to the amount of plaintiff's monthly line-of-duty disability pension benefit. The Board asserts that its amended decision should be upheld because (1) the Board's factual findings-that plaintiff's last day on the City's payroll was March 8, 2013, and that plaintiff's salary at the time was $73, 829.32-are entitled to great deference but were ignored by the trial court; (2) the Board correctly determined plaintiff's salary attached to rank as necessary to determine the appropriate amount of plaintiff's monthly disability pension benefit; and (3) pursuant to the Illinois Administrative Code (Administrative Code) (50 Ill. Adm. Code 4402.30, 4402.35, 4402.60 (1996)), non-payroll compensation, such as workers' compensation payments and lump-sum payments of accrued vacation and compensatory time, are irrelevant for determining salary attached to rank. The Board asks, therefore, that we reverse the trial court's ruling and that we confirm the Board's amended decision.[2]

         ¶ 11 Plaintiff argues that the trial court's ruling is proper and should be upheld. In support of that argument, plaintiff contends that (1) the Board's amended written order is void because it did not comply with the Open Meetings Act (Act) (5 ILCS 120/2(c)(4) (West 2014)) in that the written order did not set forth any of the determinative reasoning underlying the Board's decision as required by the Act; (2) in the alternative, the Board made no findings of fact, interpretations of any regulations, or conclusions of law to which deference should be given by this Court; (3) the clear and unequivocal language of section 4-110 of the Illinois Pension Code (Pension Code) (40 ILCS 5/4-110 (West 2014)) requires that plaintiff's salary attached to rank be determined as of the last day plaintiff was paid by the City, which was in March 2014; (4) the express language of section 4-110 of the Pension Code has not been changed by section 4402.60 of the Administrative Code; (5) to the extent that the Board's interpretation of section 4402.60 of the Administrative Code is accurate, it conflicts with the express provisions of section 4-110 of the Pension Code, would produce an absurd result in this case, and cannot be enforced; (6) the Board's assertions regarding workers' compensation benefits, offsets, and other ancillary matters do not change the express wording of section 4-110 of the Pension Code; and (7) the Illinois Department of Insurance (IDOI) has issued an advisory opinion in May 2016 in a factually similar case ...


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