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Levin v. The Retirement Board of The County Employees'

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Sixth Division

June 7, 2019

LORI G. LEVIN on Behalf of Herself and All Others Similarly Situated, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
THE RETIREMENT BOARD OF THE COUNTY EMPLOYEES' AND OFFICERS' ANNUITY AND BENEFIT FUND OF COOK COUNTY, Defendant-Appellee.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 16 CH 14789 Honorable Kathleen M. Pantle, Judge Presiding.

          JUSTICE HARRIS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justice Cunningham concurred in the judgment and opinion. Justice Connors dissented, with opinion.

          OPINION

          HARRIS JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 In September 2016, plaintiff-appellant, Lori G. Levin, requested that defendant-appellee, the Retirement Board of the County Employees' and Officers' Annuity and Benefit Fund of Cook County (hereinafter Board), allow her to purchase health insurance under the County Employees' and Officers' Annuity and Benefit Fund of Cook County (hereinafter Fund). After several procedural delays, the Board voted to deny Levin the ability to purchase health insurance under the Fund because Levin's last employer was the State of Illinois and not Cook County. The Board cited a provision in the benefits handbook, which required that in order to be eligible for the insurance, an individual must be an "annuitant" as defined by statute and the annuitant's last job must have been with Cook County. Levin appealed the Board's decision to the circuit court of Cook County. In May 2018, the circuit court affirmed the Board's decision. The circuit court ruled Levin did not have an unconditional right to the health insurance and the Board did not exceed its authority when it implemented the "last-employer" rule. Levin then appealed to this court.

         ¶ 2 For the reasons stated more fully below, we reverse the order of the Board. It is undisputed that Levin is an "annuitant," and we conclude that under the applicable statute she is entitled to seek health insurance provided by the Fund. We hold the Board exceeded its authority when it implemented the "last-employer" rule. The rule is declared void and unenforceable.

         ¶ 3 JURISDICTION

         ¶ 4 This action commenced on September 22, 2016, when Levin sent a letter to the Board requesting health benefits under the Fund. The Board denied her request in a final order dated June 12, 2017. Levin timely sought administrative review of the Board's order before the circuit court of Cook County. On May 10, 2018, the circuit court affirmed the Board's order denying health insurance benefits to Levin. On June 4, 2018, Levin timely filed her notice of appeal. Accordingly, this court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to article VI, section 6, of the Illinois Constitution and Illinois Supreme Court Rules 301 and 303. Ill. Const. 1970, art. VI, § 6; Ill. S.Ct. R. 301 (eff. Feb. 1, 1994); Ill. S.Ct. R. 303 (eff. May 30, 2008).

         ¶ 5 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 6 Both parties agree the facts of this case are largely undisputed. Plaintiff-appellant, Levin, was employed by Cook County as an assistant state's attorney from November 1, 1980, until July 31, 2003. During her employment with Cook County, she made the employee contributions required to be an annuitant of the Fund. On or about August 1, 2003, Levin entered into service with the State of Illinois as executive director of the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority. During her tenure as executive director, Levin paid employee contributions required as a participant of the State Employees' Retirement System. On or about June 5, 2009, Levin resigned from service with the State of Illinois. On December 20, 2011, the Board received Levin's application for annuity benefits. The Board approved the application at its regularly scheduled meeting in January 2012. The calculation of Levin's annuity benefit was based upon her service with Cook County and the State of Illinois pursuant to the Retirement Systems Reciprocal Act (40 ILCS 5/20-101 et seq. (West 2016)).

         ¶ 7 Following her retirement from the State, Levin had health insurance under her husband's employer's plan. Subsequently, her husband left his employer and the couple continued to have coverage via COBRA insurance. This coverage expired on October 1, 2016. Since Levin had not worked for the State of Illinois for the required eight years, she was ineligible to participate in the State of Illinois's retiree health insurance plan.

         ¶ 8 In a letter dated September 22, 2016, Levin requested that the Board allow her to purchase health insurance under the Fund's plan for herself and her husband. The Board responded in a letter dated October 6, 2016. It stated her request had been rejected:

"The Board has considered your request and we regret that upon review you and your husband do not satisfy the eligibility requirements to participate in the retiree health plan. In closing, because Cook County was not your last employer prior to the effective date of your annuity benefits, you do not meet the eligibility requirements."

         The Board's October 6, 2016, letter referenced the "Cook County Pension Fund Health Benefits Handbook" dated 2009 (hereinafter Handbook), which states that in order to be eligible for the retiree health benefits, a participant must be both an "annuitant" pursuant to section 9-239 of the Illinois Pension Code (id. § 9-239) and must have been last employed with Cook County or the Forest Preserve District.

         ¶ 9 In an October 22, 2016, letter to the Board, Levin requested reconsideration of the October 6 decision. No response was ever received. On November 10, 2016, Levin filed a complaint in the circuit court of Cook County seeking administrative review of the Board's October 6 decision. On March 14, 2017, at the request of the Board, the circuit court entered an agreed order remanding the matter "to the Board for further proceedings, at its April 6, 2017 meeting and to issue a final administrative decision regarding Plaintiff's request to purchase group health insurance from the Fund." Following an executive session, the Board adopted a motion to take the matter "under advisement and that a decision regarding her request be deferred until the Board's next regular meeting on May 4, 2017."

         ¶ 10 The Board did not address the issue at the May 4 meeting nor did it address it at the June 1 meeting. At a special meeting of the Board on June 12, 2017, the Board issued a final decision rejecting Levin's request. The Board again pointed to the eligibility requirements found in the Handbook.

         ¶ 11 The parties then returned to the circuit court. The parties briefed Levin's complaint for administrative review. On September 27, 2017, the circuit court requested supplemental briefing on whether it was necessary to reach the constitutional grounds raised in Levin's complaint. After supplemental briefing, the circuit court heard oral arguments on November 20, 2017. On May 10, 2018, the circuit court issued an order affirming the Board's denial of Levin's request. In its ruling, the circuit court held that section 9-239 did not provide Levin with an unconditional right to participate in the Fund's health plan because the statute states that the Fund "may" subsidize an annuitant's health coverage. The court further ruled that the "last-employer" rule adopted in 2009 did not exceed the Board's authority and did not conflict with the Pension Code. Finally, the court held that the pension clause of the Illinois Constitution was inapplicable.

         ¶ 12 This ...


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