from the Circuit Court of the 10th Judicial Circuit, Peoria
County, Illinois. Appeal No. 3-18-0702 Circuit No. 16-MR-198
The Honorable Katherine Gorman Hubler, Judge, presiding.
Attorneys for Appellant: Jennifer Bonesteel, of Stephen P.
Kelly, Attorney at Law, LLC, of Peoria, for appellant.
Attorneys for Appellee: Kenneth M. Snodgrass Jr. and Kevin O.
Sheahan, of Hasselberg Grebe Snodgrass Urban & Wentworth,
of Peoria, for appellee.
JUSTICE CARTER delivered the judgment of the court, with
opinion. Justices O'Brien and Wright concurred in the
judgment and opinion.
1 Plaintiff, Terry Esser, a disabled former Peoria police
officer who was awarded health insurance benefits pursuant to
the Public Safety Employee Benefits Act (Act) (820 ILCS 320/1
et seq. (West 2014)), filed an action in the trial
court against defendant, the City of Peoria (City), seeking a
declaratory judgment that the City was required by the Act to
pay the entire premium amount for Esser to be covered by the
City's low-deductible group health insurance plan. The
City opposed the action and argued that, under the statute,
it was only required to pay the premium amount for Esser to
be covered by the City's high-deductible group health
insurance plan, which was less expensive than the City's
low-deductible plan. Following a hearing, the trial court
ruled in favor of the City and dismissed Esser's
declaratory judgment action. Esser appeals. We affirm the
trial court's judgment.
3 Esser was employed by the City, a home-rule unit, as a
police officer. In June and October 2013, Esser injured his
back while at work. Esser eventually had surgery on his back
but was unable to return to work as a police officer. In
September 2014, Esser filed an application with the pension
board for line-of-duty disability pension benefits, which was
later granted. In August 2015, Esser filed an application for
health insurance benefits from the City pursuant to section
10 of the Act (id. § 10). The City initially
opposed the application but subsequently withdrew its
objection. In November 2015, an agreed order was entered
granting Esser health insurance benefits under the Act.
4 In February 2016, the City sent Esser a letter notifying
him that he had two different group health insurance plans
available to him as a recipient under the Act-a
high-deductible plan and a low-deductible plan-the same two
plans that the City offered to active City police officers.
Esser had previously been enrolled in the low-deductible plan
prior to leaving his employment with the police department
(due to his disability). The City informed Esser that it
would pay the full cost of the premium for the
high-deductible plan but that if Esser chose the
low-deductible plan, which was more expensive, he would have
to pay the difference in the premiums between the two plans.
Esser later elected to enroll in the low-deductible plan.
5 The directions that the City gave Esser regarding the
premium that the City would pay were taken from a City policy
adopted in January 2014. Prior to that time, for
approximately seven years, the City had paid the entire
premium amount for its recipients under the Act, regardless
of whether those recipients had enrolled in the
high-deductible or low-deductible plan. Only one exception to
the City's policy had been made. The City had elected to
pay the entire premium amount of the low-deductible plan for
the wife and children of a police officer, Officer Faulkner,
who had been killed in the line of duty.
6 In March 2016, Esser filed the instant declaratory judgment
action against the City, asking the trial court to issue a
ruling that the City was required by the Act to pay the
entire cost of Esser's health insurance premium for the
low-deductible plan. After a hearing, the trial court ruled
in favor of the City and dismissed Esser's declaratory
judgment action. Esser appealed.
8 On appeal, Esser argues that the trial court erred in
finding that, under the Act, the City was not required to pay
the entire cost of Esser's health insurance premium for
the low-deductible group health insurance plan and in
dismissing Esser's declaratory judgment action on that
basis. Esser asserts that, as a matter of statutory
interpretation, the Act requires the City to pay the entire
premium amount of "basic" group health insurance
coverage for its recipients under the Act, which Esser
maintains in this case is the entire premium amount for the
low-deductible plan. More specifically, Esser contends that
both the high- and low-deductible plans are "basic"
group health insurance plans as described in the statute and
that the City is required by the Act to continue Esser in the
low-deductible plan because that was the health insurance
plan that Esser had at the time of his disability. As further
support for his position on appeal, Esser points to the prior
instance where the City paid the entire premium amount of the
low-deductible plan for the family of Officer Faulkner after
Faulkner was killed in the line of duty and asserts that the
Act does not allow the City to distinguish between employees
who are killed in the line of duty and those who are
catastrophically injured in determining what amount to pay
for benefits under the Act. Finally, Esser maintains that
continuing his existing health insurance plan at the same
level is not a "supplemental" benefit under the
Act, despite the City's contention to the contrary, and
is consistent with the purpose of the statute-to continue
health insurance coverage for those workers (and their
families) who are killed or catastrophically injured in the
line of duty. For all of the reasons stated, Esser asks that
we reverse the trial court's judgment.
9 The City argues that the trial court's ruling was
proper and should be upheld. The City asserts that the plain
language of the Act mandates only that the City pay the
entire premium amount for the "basic" group health
insurance plan, which the City contends is the
high-deductible plan. Thus, the City maintains that it
satisfied its statutory obligation under the Act when it
agreed to pay the entire premium amount of the
high-deductible plan for Esser. In support of its assertion,
the City points out that the statute refers to
"plan" in the singular form, rather than plural,
and contends that the singular language is an indication
that, contrary to Esser's claim on appeal, an employer
can have only one "basic" group health insurance
plan. The City asserts further that Esser's broad
interpretation of the Act in favor of recipients is contrary
to case law precedent, which holds that the Act must be
construed in favor of employers. In addition, the City
asserts that, under its home-rule authority, it has the
ability to designate which of its group health insurance
plans is the "basic" plan for the purpose of
benefits under the Act, since the City has an obligation to
be fiscally responsible along with providing those benefits.
The City also contends that it is not prohibited under the
Act from providing additional benefits to the family of a
police officer who has been killed in the line of duty and
that the City doing so for Officer Faulkner's family did