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Naden v. The Firefighters' Pension Fund

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Second District

November 17, 2017

SARA NADEN, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
THE FIREFIGHTERS' PENSION FUND OF THE SUGAR GROVE FIRE PROTECTION DISTRICT; THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE FIREFIGHTERS' PENSION FUND OF THE SUGAR GROVE FIRE PROTECTION DISTRICT; D AV I D LINDEN, BILL PERKINS, BRENDAN MORAN, JASON NICHOLS, and MIKE WARNER, in Their Official Capacities as Trustees of the Firefighters' Pension Fund of the Sugar Grove Fire Protection District; THE INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF FIREFIGHTERS-ASSOCIATED FIREFIGHTERS OF ILLINOIS LOCAL 4748; JERRY MARZULLO, as Attorney for the International Association of Firefighters-Associated Firefighters of Illinois Local 4748 and/or as Attorney for One or More of the Members of Said Association; THE SUGAR GROVE FIRE PROTECTION DISTRICT; THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE SUGAR GROVE FIRE PROTECTION DISTRICT; and MIKE FAGEL, JOHN GUDDENDORF, CHRISTOPHER RUCHAJ, HARRY DAVIS, and DAVID BLANKENSHIP, in Their Official Capacities as Trustees of the Sugar Grove Fire Protection District, Defendants The Firefighters' Pension Fund of the Sugar Grove Fire Protection District, The Board of Trustees of the Firefighters' Pension Fund of the Sugar Grove Fire Protection District, David Linden, Bill Perkins, Brendan Moran, Jason Nichols, Mike Warner, The International Association of Firefighters-Associated Firefighters of Illinois Local 4748, The Sugar Grove Fire Protection District, The Board of Trustees of the Sugar Grove Fire Protection District, Mike Fagel, John Guddendorf, Christopher Ruchaj, Harry Davis, and David Blankenship, Defendants-Appellees.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Kane County. No. 15-MR-1175 Honorable David R. Akemann, Judge, Presiding.

          JUSTICE HUTCHINSON delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices McLaren and Jorgensen concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          HUTCHINSON JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 Plaintiff, Sara Naden, is a lieutenant with the Sugar Grove Fire Protection District (District). She applied for a disability pension from the five-member Board of Trustees of the Firefighters' Pension Fund of the Sugar Grove Fire Protection District (Board). The Board held a hearing and denied Naden's application, finding that she was not disabled. Naden sought judicial review of the Board's decision in the circuit court (see 735 ILCS 5/3-101 et seq. (West 2014) (Administrative Review Law)), and the court affirmed the Board's determination. Naden appeals to us. She contends that the Board was biased against her and further that its decision was against the manifest weight of the evidence. We agree with Naden's first contention; therefore, we vacate and remand to the Board with directions to hold a new hearing on Naden's application.

         ¶ 2 Because this is an administrative law case, we directly review the decision of the Board and not the decision of the circuit court. See Kramarski v. Board of Trustees of the Village of Orland Park Police Pension Fund, 402 Ill.App.3d 1040, 1046 (2010). Here, the Board held a hearing, which resulted in the following evidence.

         ¶ 3 The District hired Naden in 1998 as a part-time, or "paid-on-call, " firefighter and emergency medical technician (EMT). In 2000, Naden completed training to be a paramedic at Waubonsee Community College; the District paid for her schooling. In 2001, she was promoted to part-time lieutenant. Due to regional population growth and a corresponding increase in call volume, in 2006 the District transitioned from a part-time staff to a full-time force of roughly 30 firefighters. The District's full-time firefighters were split into three teams, or shifts, with each team working a 24-hour shift every third day. Each shift had a lieutenant. There were only three female full-time firefighters in the District. Naden was one of the first applicants hired back as a full-time firefighter/paramedic in 2006. She was not permitted to keep any rank upon being rehired. However, Naden successfully tested for a full-time lieutenant's position in 2012 and was promoted to full-time lieutenant in February 2013.

         ¶ 4 In her testimony before the Board, Naden stated that she had been subjected to intense criticism, ridicule, and sexual harassment by her male coworkers-both her subordinates and her superiors-over many years. According to Naden, she had "crying spells" and "anxiety attacks" at work, and she "continually fe[lt] sick to [her] stomach."

         ¶ 5 On March 10, 2014, Naden sought treatment from her primary care physician for panic attacks. Naden's physician assessed her panic attacks and prescribed medication for anxiety and depression. Naden continued to work regular shifts for the District until March 31, 2014. On April 2, 2014, Naden sent an e-mail to then-District Chief Martin Kunkel and requested a leave of absence from the District, citing her anxiety and her treatment by her coworkers. The District granted Naden 12 unpaid workweeks of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA). See 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)(D) (2012). However, in conjunction with her leave, the District asked Naden to submit a written complaint regarding her allegations of sexual harassment. Naden prepared a 16-page single-spaced report and submitted it to the District on April 8, 2014. Naden's report described dozens of alleged incidents of workplace harassment since 2006. Many of the incidents described harassment by then-Lieutenant Brendan Moran (now a battalion chief) and firefighters Jason Nichols and Mike Warner.

         ¶ 6 On May 13, 2014, under the Firemen's Disciplinary Act (50 ILCS 745/1 et seq. (We s t 2014)), the District issued Naden a "Notice of Interrogation" stating that, despite her FMLA leave, a formal inquiry would commence at the station the following week. The notice stated that "[t]he purpose of this interrogation is to fully investigate complaints made by Lt. Sara Naden regarding claims of harassment." Naden sought a continuance of the hearing. The District responded by suspending the hearing indefinitely; thus, the interrogation remains ongoing.

         ¶ 7 Naden did not return to work when her 12 weeks of leave ended; the parties do not dispute that her last reported day of work was March 31, 2014. Naden subsequently applied for workers' compensation benefits, filed a claim of sex discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and sought either a line-of-duty or a non-duty disability pension.

         ¶ 8 The five-member Board heard additional evidence and unanimously concluded in a roll-call vote that Naden was not disabled and thus not eligible to receive either a line-of-duty or a non-duty pension. T w o weeks after the roll-call vote, four members of the Board adopted a 36-page written decision, which set out the members' findings. The Board's fifth member was absent on the date the written decision was adopted; nevertheless, for convenience's sake, and because all members participated in the roll-call vote, we can treat the written decision as an expression of the entire Board.

         ¶ 9 On appeal, Naden contends that she did not receive a fair hearing before the Board, and we agree. Ordinarily, during the administrative review of an agency's determination, we grant considerable deference to the agency. We do not reweigh the evidence the agency heard but merely determine whether there was at least some evidence to support its conclusion. See Danko v. Board of Trustees of the City of Harvey Pension Board, 240 Ill.App.3d 633, 641 (1992). However, the issue of whether an administrative hearing was fair is a question of law, which we review de novo. Sudzus v. Department of Employment Security, 393 Ill.App.3d 814, 824 (2009). Thus, we owe no deference to an administrative adjudication where one of the adjudicators was either so biased in favor of or so prejudiced against one of the parties that the outcome was practically a foregone conclusion.

         ¶ 10 Administrative hearings are quasi-judicial proceedings that must comport with due process. Due process requires that a judge possess neither actual nor apparent bias. As our supreme court has said:

"It is a classical principle of jurisprudence that no man who has a personal interest in the subject matter of decision in a case may ...

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