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Prawdzik v. Board of Trustees of Homer Township Fire Protection District Pension Fund

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Third District

March 27, 2019

GREGORY PRAWDZIK, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE HOMER TOWNSHIP FIRE PROTECTION DISTRICT PENSION FUND, Defendant-Appellee.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Will County, No. 16-MR-1067; the Hon. John C. Anderson, Judge, presiding.

          Thomas S. Radja Jr., of Collins & Radja, of Naperville, for appellant.

          Jeffrey A. Goodloe, of Puchalski Goodloe Marzullo, LLP, of Northbrook, for appellee.

          Panel JUSTICE HOLDRIDGE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justice McDade concurred in the judgment and opinion. Presiding Justice Schmidt dissented, with opinion.

          OPINION

          HOLDRIDGE, JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 The plaintiff, Gregory Prawdzik (Prawdzik), a former firefighter, brought an action for administrative review to the circuit court of Will County appealing the decision of the defendant, the Board of Trustees of the Homer Township Fire Protection District Pension Fund (Board), denying Prawdzik a "line of duty" disability pension. The circuit court affirmed the Board's decision. This appeal followed.

         ¶ 2 FACTS

         ¶ 3 Prawdzik was employed as a firefighter for the Homer Township Fire Protection District Fire Department (District) starting on May 8, 2006. He also served in the Air National Guard.

         ¶ 4 In 2008-09, during his employment as a firefighter, Prawdzik was deployed for military duty in Afghanistan for a 10-month period. He was deployed to the eastern border of Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan, where he served as a combat medic and combat advisor. The area where Prawdzik served was a thoroughfare for Taliban insurgents. Prawdzik trained, mentored, and advised a medical platoon of a battalion-sized element of the Afghan army. He accompanied his Afghan unit on combat missions approximately three to four times per week. Missions could last anywhere from several hours to one week. Prawdzik provided medical treatment to troops who later died.

         ¶ 5 Prawdzik testified that he encountered many life-threatening incidents while he was in Afghanistan. While on combat missions, Prawdzik was shot at approximately 10 times. Moreover, he testified that he experienced approximately 10 rocket attacks or improvised explosive device (IED) attacks. On one occasion, insurgents fired rockets at the base where Prawdzik was stationed. Prawdzik rolled out of his bunk and laid on the floor. As the rockets kept coming, someone yelled for everyone to get to the bunkers. Prawdzik thought he was going to die and was thinking about his wife and son and how they would get along without him. The rockets hit another barracks approximately 100 meters from Prawdzik's tent, killing two contractors.

         ¶ 6 On another occasion, a rocket attack occurred while Prawdzik was in the "chow hall." Prawdzik testified that the door bowed in, all the lights shut off, the emergency power came on, and the room was filled with dust. He felt that his life was in jeopardy. Prawdzik testified that, on another occasion, he had to "go with Afghans and interpreters through the kill zone onto the other side of the kill zone" to try to find his partner who had become separated from the rest of the unit while the unit was on patrol. During that incident, Prawdzik was under rocket-propelled grenade fire.

         ¶ 7 Prawdzik testified that he also experienced IED attacks. On one occasion, Prawdzik was driving in a convoy of United States military mine resistant ambush proof (MRAP) vehicles when the convoy was struck by an IED. Prawdzik heard a loud boom and "everything went black." He was thrown to the back of the vehicle and hit his head. The blow rendered him unconscious. When he came to, his vehicle was flipped upside down in a crater. Prawdzik testified that he was trapped upside down in the vehicle by a 400-pound door and he was unable to get out for over an hour. During that time, Prawdzik was afraid for his life and in fear of being attacked before he could be rescued. He suffered a head injury and was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury.

         ¶ 8 Prawdzik testified that, while he was in Afghanistan, he felt as though his life was under constant threat and that he was going to die there. He did not trust the Afghans he patrolled with because he suspected that "half of them were Taliban," and there were regular reports of Afghan military or police "turning on their U.S. counterparts and shooting them." While he was getting haircuts in Afghanistan, he feared that the Afghan barber might kill him with a pair of scissors.

         ¶ 9 Prawdzik returned from Afghanistan and resumed working as a firefighter for the District on November 1, 2009. After he returned from Afghanistan, Prawdzik suffered from a variety of symptoms that he did not have before his deployment. For example, Prawdzik suffered from migraine headaches, panic attacks, tightness in his chest, shortness of breath, nausea, blurred (or "tunnel") vision, irritability, sadness, emotional numbness, poor concentration, insomnia, and feelings of being detached from family and friends. Prawdzik acknowledged that these were symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).[1] He sought treatment through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). On February 9, 2010, Prawdzik showed signs of PTSD during a mental health screen, and he reported the traumatic experiences he had experienced in Afghanistan. On March 11, 2010, Dr. Thomas Benton of the VA diagnosed Prawdzik with PTSD, adjustment disorder with anxiety, and depressed mood. Dr. Benton opined that Prawdzik's PTSD symptoms (such as mild depression, passive suicidal ideation, emotional blunting, and irritability leading to verbal altercations and road rage) had increased in frequency and intensity due to "the post-military stressors of unstructured time and frustration over continuous Iraq and Afghanistan war news."

         ¶ 10 On March 15, 2010, Prawdzik underwent a psychiatric assessment at the VA due to "irritability with explosive outbursts." He was receiving mental health treatment from a private psychologist at that time. Prawdzik reported that he was concerned that his mental health issues might jeopardize his career with the District. The following day, Prawdzik underwent a neurological consultation during which he reported symptoms of PTSD, including sleep disturbances. The examiner opined that Prawdzik's sleep disturbances and current life stressors "may be contributing to his current cognitive inefficiencies" and that these impairments represented a "change" and a "relative reduction" in Prawdzik's abilities. The consult recommended mental health treatment.

         ¶ 11 The VA determined that Prawdzik's PTSD was related to his military service and awarded him VA disability benefits for PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and tinnitus. Prawdzik attended group therapy for PTSD on June 1, 2010, but did not continue with the therapy in 2010.

         ¶ 12 Prawdzik testified that he experienced panic attacks and related symptoms while on duty as a firefighter in 2009 and 2010 but that he did not report them to the District because he was hoping the situation would "resolve and take care of itself." He also experienced panic attacks when he was not on duty. While attempting to complete a driving program at work, Prawdzik was "having issues with getting in the vehicles and driving the larger vehicles." He testified that the MRAP vehicles he drove in Afghanistan were built similarly to fire department trucks in that they had the same chassis that a fire engine has, as well as the same steering column, transmission, brake system, and an identical inside cab area.

         ¶ 13 On July 13, 2011, Prawdzik informed the district that he suffered from PTSD. He discussed some of his experiences in Afghanistan and reported that one of the things that bothered him at work was driving the fire engine and other trucks, noting the similarity between these trucks and military vehicles. He attributed this problem to PTSD. Approximately one month later, Prawdzik met with his supervisors and discussed traumatic events that had occurred during his deployment. The District placed Prawdzik on administrative leave, ordered a fitness for duty evaluation, and required Prawdzik to complete a driving program.

         ¶ 14 On August 23, 2011, Dr. Tracy Rogers performed a fitness for duty evaluation for Prawdzik. Dr. Rogers noted that Prawdzik did not feel comfortable driving the fire engine or trucks because of the similarity between those vehicles and the military vehicles he drove in Afghanistan and that sitting in the cab of the fire trucks "triggers [his] PTSD symptoms." Dr. Rogers diagnosed Prawdzik with PTSD and found him conditionally fit for duty. Dr. Rogers opined that, although Prawdzik had had PTSD for the past two years, his symptoms did not appear to have affected his work performance or overall functioning. However, Dr. Rogers acknowledged that certain thoughts about trauma caused Prawdzik stress and "exacerbated [his] symptoms" and that Prawdzik was avoiding driving the fire engine and trucks because the cabs of those vehicles reminded him of the military vehicles that he drove while deployed, including the vehicle he was trapped in after receiving a head injury.

         ¶ 15 On August 6, 2013, Prawdzik sought mental health treatment form the VA and reported increased PTSD symptoms, including anxiety, nightmares, recurrent thoughts of trauma, feeling watchful and getting easily startled, and feelings of numbness and detachment. He reported that his recent increase in anxiety symptoms was triggered mostly by a stressful work environment. Specifically, he felt scrutinized at work because the District had a new chief who was writing people up, demoting them, and firing them. He also stated that his PTSD symptoms were exacerbated by driving the rigs at work, although he had passed the driving program ordered by his supervisors. The social worker who evaluated Prawdzik opined that PTSD symptoms may be perpetuated by the "trauma of war" and that Prawdzik's symptoms were impacted by "occupational stress" and "parenting stress."

         ¶ 16 On September 3, 2013, Prawdzik began therapy for PTSD and marital issues. During a September 11, 2013, session, he reported that he was "triggered at work when driving large trucks or hearing loud noises" and that he tended to be hypervigilant and "extra worried about safety issues." He discussed the many combat traumas he had experienced. On September 27, 2013, Dr. Pradipkumar Desai examined Prawdzik at the VA for anxiety and depression. Dr. Desai noted that Prawdzik's reduction in alcohol consumption had "significantly" reduced his PTSD symptoms, but also noted that Prawdzik's mood was sad and anxious. Dr. Desai diagnosed Prawdzik with PTSD exacerbated by physical stressors. Prawdzik testified that the stress and anxiety he was treated for in 2013 were a continuation of the PTSD symptoms he had been experiencing since 2009, that his PTSD was "from Afghanistan," and that his doctors had told him that he would have these symptoms for the rest of his life.

         ¶ 17 On June 20 and September 20, 2014, Dr. Desai examined Prawdzik again for PTSD. During both sessions, Prawdzik presented with depressed mood and reported that he was suffering from "nightmares and flashbacks." During his August 18, 2014, District physical, Prawdzik reported that he had experienced weakness and fatigue, as well as persistent anxiety, lack of concentration, and insomnia during the past few months. He later testified that the effects of the war were taking a toll on his mental health in 2013 and 2014.

         ¶ 18 On November 7, 2014, Prawdzik was working full duties as a firefighter when he was dispatched to an emergency call. On the way back from the call, the fire truck Prawdzik was driving was shifting roughly between gears. As Prawdzik tried to check the pump shift lever to fix the problem, he inadvertently hit the power switch, shutting off all the power in the vehicle while the vehicle was traveling at approximately 45 miles per hour. This reminded Prawdzik of his experience in Afghanistan when his vehicle was hit by an IED, and it gave Prawdzik the feeling that he was going to die. Prawdzik testified that he had an anxiety attack after the November 7, 2014, incident and that his PTSD symptoms of anxiety got progressively worse thereafter. For example, Prawdzik stated that, over the next few days, he began to feel tightness in his chest, blurred vision, shortness of breath, and was having trouble concentrating. However, Prawdzik admitted that he may have been having increasing anxiety prior to the November 7, 2014, incident. Prawdzik did not report having a panic attack on November 7, 2014.

         ¶ 19 On November 16, 2014 (two duty shift days after the November 7, 2014, incident), Prawdzik reported the issues he was having with PTSD and asked to go home. He was placed on modified duty and never returned to full, unrestricted duty thereafter. During the three years prior to the November 7, 2014, incident, Prawdzik had been able to perform his full, unrestricted firefighter duties despite his PTSD.

         ¶ 20 Prawdzik underwent another fitness for duty evaluation on November 21, 2014. At that time, Prawdzik reported experiencing anxiety symptoms (including a panic attack that occurred during the November 7, 2014, work incident), but he denied experiencing any symptoms of PTSD aside from generalized anxiety. The evaluator (Dr. Wasyliw) noted that Prawdzik did not associate his anxiety symptoms with his "service-connected" experiences, and that Prawdzik had problems on the job only when driving trucks reminiscent of those he drove in Afghanistan. Dr. Wasyliw concluded that Prawdzik was unable to drive fire trucks due to his anxiety issues. Because it is a necessary requirement of Prawdzik's employment that he be able to drive all Department vehicles at any time, Dr. Wasyliw found Prawdzik unfit for duty. Dr. Wasyliw opined that the claimant was unfit for duty due to "generalized anxiety disorder with residual PTSD symptoms and a major depressive episode." Dr. Wasyliw noted that Prawdzik had been experiencing increasing "generalized" anxiety for a few days in early November, which "became worse" after the November 7, 2014, work incident, when the power went out in the truck the claimant was driving. Dr. Wasyliw opined that Prawdzik's anxiety disorder was "more widespread" at the time of his November 21, 2014, evaluation than it had been when the claimant underwent a previous fitness for duty evaluation in 2011. Although Dr. Wasyliw "could not uncover any specific precipitants or stressors" that triggered Prawdzik's increased anxiety during the week prior to the November 7, 2014, incident, Dr. Wasyliw noted that (1) Prawdzik had "report[ed] a number of long standing physical symptoms that may have a medical basis" and (2) Prawdzik had recently begun taking a new medication for a urinary condition and it "needs to be assessed" whether the new medication was contributing to Prawdzik's anxiety and depression.

         ¶ 21 Thereafter, Prawdzik continued to undergo mental health treatment for PTSD. His mental health records indicate that he continued to experience PTSD symptoms, including panic attacks while driving and during other situations. A May 2015 fitness for duty evaluation concluded that Prawdzik's panic attacks could occur at any time and were not related to any specific situation. On April 17, 2015, Prawdzik reported increased panic attacks and was placed on administrative leave. A June 3, 2015, PTSD assessment at the VA concluded that (1) Prawdzik's job duties as a firefighter resembled his service-related traumas, which have "contributed to his PTSD symptoms relapse," and (2) it is more likely than not that ...


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