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Peoria v. The Firefighters' Pension Fund of City of Peoria

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Third District

December 10, 2019

THE CITY OF PEORIA, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
THE FIREFIGHTERS' PENSION FUND OF THE CITY OF PEORIA; JACK NIEUKIRK, BETH BALL, PATRICK NICHTING, RALPH PHILLIPS, and JOE TROGLIO, in Their Capacities as Trustees for the Firefighters' Pension Fund of the City of Peoria; and MICHAEL BROOKS, Defendants-Appellees.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 10th Judicial Circuit, Peoria County, Illinois, Circuit No. 17-MR-172 Honorable Katherine S. Gorman Hubler, Judge, Presiding.

          Attorneys for Appellant: Kenneth M. Snodgrass Jr. and Kevin O. Sheahan, of Hasselberg Grebe Snodgrass Urban & Wentworth, of Peoria, for appellant.

          Attorneys for Appellee: Robert B. McCoy, of Miller, Hall & Triggs, LLC, of Peoria, for appellee Michael Brooks. Richard J. Reimer and Mark S. McQueary, of Reimer & Dobrovolny PC, of Hinsdale, for other appellees.

          JUSTICE WRIGHT delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Carter and Lytton concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          WRIGHT, JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 Michael Brooks applied for and received a line of duty disability pension from the Firefighters' Pension Fund of the City of Peoria (Pension Board). The City of Peoria (City) was denied permission to intervene in the Pension Board's proceedings. In the circuit court of Peoria County, the City filed a complaint for administrative review of both the Pension Board's denial of the City's petitions for intervention and the grant of Brooks' line of duty disability pension. The circuit court affirmed these decisions of the Pension Board after Brooks challenged the City's standing to file a complaint for administrative review. The City appeals.

         ¶ 2 I. BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 Defendant-appellee, Brooks, began working for the City of Peoria Fire Department (Department) in 1991. He began as a firefighter but eventually earned the title of engineer. On July 16, 2015, Brooks participated in a "collapsed house" exercise at the City of Peoria Fire Training Academy. The exercise involved diminished visibility, confined spaces, scattered debris, low profile techniques, and other obstacles. Brooks was extracted from the exercise after injuring his right knee. He was transported to OSF St. Francis Medical Center.

         ¶ 4 On January 19, 2016, Brooks submitted a line of duty disability application to defendant- appellee, the Pension Board. Brooks applied for a line of duty disability pension on the grounds that, due to the injury sustained during the July 16, 2015, "collapsed house" exercise, he needed a right knee replacement. The application indicated that, during the exercise, Brooks "felt a wall and pushed off *** with [his] right leg *** [and] immediately felt intense pain." Due to this injury, Brooks stated he could no longer perform his duties at the Department.

         ¶ 5 The Pension Board received initial reports prepared by three board certified orthopedic surgeons who, under section 4-112 of the Illinois Pension Code (40 ILCS 5/4-112 (West 2014)) performed independent medical examinations of Brooks. In preparation for their independent medical examinations, the surgeons reviewed Brooks's medical and employment records.

         ¶ 6 Dr. Joshua M. Alpert examined Brooks on February 9, 2016, and submitted a report to the Pension Board on February 22, 2016. In his report, Dr. Alpert stated Brooks "suffered from a preexisting right knee osteoarthritis," which was "exacerbated during his work-related strain injury." The report stated Brooks's "disability related to his right knee osteoarthritis [wa]s not related to the work incident," but his "symptoms *** regarding inflammation and pain in his right knee were the result of his work injury." The "disability, in [Dr. Alpert's] opinion, was the result of some aggravation of the pre-existing right knee osteoarthritis." Brooks was "unable to *** perform his job as outlined in the job description."

         ¶ 7 Dr. Michael S. Lewis examined Brooks on February 12, 2016, and submitted his report to the Pension Board on February 22, 2016. Dr. Lewis diagnosed Brooks with "degenerative arthritis and osteochondromatosis of the right knee." Thus, "Brooks [wa]s unable to perform his regular daily tasks as a firefighter." Dr. Lewis opined that Brooks' disability was permanent. In Dr. Lewis's opinion, "the alleged disability [wa]s not a direct result of the incident which occurred on July 16, 2015." "Brooks had a long previous history of severe degenerative arthritis of the right knee prior to [that] alleged injury." Though the July 16, 2015, incident temporarily exacerbated Brooks' preexisting condition, "his disability and symptoms [we]re caused by his pre-existing condition and unrelated to any employment activities."

         ¶ 8 Dr. James B. Stiehl examined Brooks on February 18, 2016, and submitted his report to the Pension Board on February 26, 2016. Dr. Stiehl stated Brooks had "advanced degenerative arthritis of his right knee and *** several significant osteochromatosis formations that *** clearly pre-exist the injury of July 16, 2015." As "degenerative and permanent disabilities," these conditions would "persist into the future and cannot be corrected." Dr. Stiehl believed "the alleged disability [wa]s within all medical probability not a direct result of the incident which occurred on July 16, 2015." Dr. Stiehl stated "the disability [wa]s solely caused by a pre-existing condition that appears to be unrelated to any employment activities." At the time of the report, Brooks was "clearly disabled *** and clearly *** could not perform his job as a firefighter."

         ¶ 9 On March 9, 2016, plaintiff-appellant, the City, filed a petition to intervene in the Pension Board's proceedings for purposes of submitting evidence and cross-examining Brooks. The City argued it had an interest in the Pension Board's proceedings because Brooks's receipt of a line of duty disability pension would impact his future claims and the City's liability under the Public Safety Employee Benefits Act (Benefits Act) (820 ILCS 320/1 et seq. (West 2014)). The City also argued it had an ...


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