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Keeling v. Board of Trustees of Forest Park Police Pension Fund

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Third Division

December 27, 2017

JASON KEELING, Plaintiff-Appellee,

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County No. 2016 CH 7047 The Honorable Peter A. Flynn Judge, presiding.

          JUSTICE LAVIN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Fitzgerald Smith and Howse concurred in the judgment and opinion


          LAVIN, JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 Following a hearing, the Board of Trustees of the Forest Park Police Pension Fund (Board) found that it lacked jurisdiction over Jason Keeling's application for a line-of-duty disability pension (40 ILCS 5/3-114.1 (West 2014)) because he was no longer a police officer when he filed the application. The Board also rejected Keeling's assertion that equitable estoppel prevented the Board from denying the timeliness of his claim. Specifically, the Board found its actions did not lead Keeling to believe another document filed during his employment was sufficient to place his claim before the Board. On administrative review, the trial court found that equitable estoppel applied and reversed the Board's decision. We now reverse the court's decision and reinstate the decision of the Board.

         ¶ 2 I. Background

         ¶ 3 On July 28, 2013, Keeling sustained injuries while working as an officer in the Village of Forest Park (Village). While Keeling was on disability leave, the Forest Park Police Department (Police Department) began an internal investigation into allegations against him. Keeling testified at a hearing before the Board that Kimkea Harris, the attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police (the Union), advised him to file an application for a disability pension. Harris also told Keeling that he needed to do so while still employed as a police officer. Keeling added that other officers similarly told him he needed to complete a disability application to ensure he was protected.

         ¶ 4 Keeling then contacted Officer Rob Bryant who was both president of the Union and a Board trustee. Keeling testified that he told Bryant what Harris had advised him to do. Additionally, Bryant testified that Keeling wanted to be sure he would have pension coverage if the Village terminated his position. Keeling testified that he met with Bryant in his capacity as Union president on April 2, 2014.

         ¶ 5 According to Keeling, Bryant brought a two-page document to their meeting. Bryant did not recall whether he had brought the document, which was titled, "Duty Disability/Occupational Disease Pension Benefit *** Information Request Form" (information request form). After Keeling completed the document, both men signed it. Keeling testified, "I believed that that was the documentation I needed to submit to kind of lock myself in in case this injury became permanent."

         ¶ 6 Bryant testified that he told Keeling he thought the information request form "would start the ball rolling, " but "was not totally sure of the official start." Bryant knew at the time that there was a separate application form but he did not know exactly how to start "the process." Bryant further testified he did not know that Keeling would have to fill out the designated application form to formally apply and, as far as Bryant knew, the information request form commenced the process before the Board.

         ¶ 7 According to Bryant, he told Keeling that he would give the information request form to the Board's attorney, who would in turn advise Keeling of anything that needed to be done to apply. Bryant also told Keeling he hoped to get him other materials if the information request form was insufficient. In addition, Keeling testified that Bryant said he would send additional documents after submitting the information request form. Bryant advised the Board at its next meeting that Keeling was going to seek disability benefits.

         ¶ 8 Keeling testified that meanwhile, he spoke to Harris, who said the information request form should be fine as long as both Bryant and Keeling had signed it. This apparently reinforced Keeling's belief that tendering the information request form constituted filing a disability application. Keeling acknowledged, however, that the Board did not send him any correspondence stating that the form was sufficient to preserve his right to apply for a disability pension.

         ¶ 9 Instead, Board attorney Richard Reimer wrote to Keeling on April 2, 2014, the same day that Keeling executed the information request form. Reimer's letter acknowledged Keeling's "request for an application for disability benefits" and provided instructions:

"In order for the Pension Board to begin to adjudicate your disability claim, the Pension Board will require you to fully complete the enclosed Application for Disability Pension Benefits. Please completely fill out the enclosed Application and return it to me at the above address." (Emphasis added.)

         The letter detailed the Board's process, and advised Keeling that "no action can be taken until such time as you complete and submit the enclosed Application and the Pension Board obtains copies of the medical records from all of your treating/examining physicians." Attached was the "Forest Park Police Pension Board Application for Disability Pension Benefits"(designated application form).

         ¶ 10 Keeling conceded that he received this letter but testified that he did not immediately submit the designated application form because "it was too early in my treatment and I didn't know what the extent of my injuries would be." Keeling also testified that he had not compared Reimer's letter and the accompanying form to the documentation for his 2008 and 2012 disability pension claims.

         ¶ 11 On April 23, 2014, the Police Department terminated Keeling's employment and the Union filed a grievance on his behalf. Before an arbitration hearing could be held, Keeling agreed to resign. On July 8, 2015, he tendered a letter resigning his employment effective as of April 23, 2014. Keeling also completed the designated application form and filed it the next day, July 9, 2015. Keeling testified that he did so after his doctors determined he would not recover further.

         ¶ 12 At the end of July, Keeling entered into a written "Employment Separation and Release Agreement" (separation agreement) with the Village, which recited that Keeling had resigned effective retroactively to April 23, 2014. The general release clause stated:

"It is the intent of the Village and Employee that this be a full, complete and general release, except that this General Release shall not apply to Employee's claim for disability benefits pending before the Village of the Forest Park Police Pension Fund ***, or the Employee's pending worker's compensation claims." According to Keeling, he believed that he had already applied for a disability pension.

         ¶ 13 Given that Keeling's employment ended before he filed the designated application form, the Board held an evidentiary hearing to determine whether it had jurisdiction over his claim. Keeling and Bryant, the only witnesses, testified to the foregoing events. On behalf of Keeling, Attorney Jerome Marconi argued that the issues were whether Keeling's information request form was sufficient to commence procedures before the Board and whether Keeling detrimentally relied on actions of the Board indicating that said form was sufficient.

         ¶ 14 Marconi argued that Bryant and Keeling discussed filing an application and Bryant, a Board trustee, knew Keeling wanted to preserve his right to seek disability pension benefits. Bryant gave Keeling the information request form and Keeling detrimentally relied on it, believing that the form started the ...

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