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Municipal Employees – Appellate Court Considers the Overlap between (some) Duty Disability & WC Claims

A recent appellate court ruling discussed the interaction of the Worker’s Compensation Act with the Pension Code as it relates to work injuries sustained by firefighters and, by inference, policeman.  In The City of Chicago v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission2014 IL App (1st) 121507 WC (January 6, 2014), the claimant suffered kidney failure while undergoing training to become a  paramedic with the Chicago Fire Department.  He was restricted from working following his May 6, 2008 incident and then later released to work at various degrees on separate dates by different doctors. The claimant filed for a duty disability pension with the city’s Pension Board, which determined that he was capable of returning to work as a firefighter as of August 3, 2009.  The Board therefore denied the claimant’s application for a disability pension. The claimant did not resume employment with the fire department, however, and on October 6, 2009, he began part-time work with a different employer.  He filed an Application with the Worker’s Compensation Commission, and his case went to hearing on his claim for  TTD through October 5, 2009 and TPD benefits for his diminished earnings in his new job.

The court first addressed, and rejected, the city’s argument that the claimant could not file for benefits under the Worker’s Compensation Act, due to the unique status of Chicago firefighters under the Act, whose claims are barred by statute other than for disfigurement claims. This prohibition does not apply to firefighters elsewhere in the State.

The city next argued that by virtue of the Pension Board’s determination denying petitioner’s duty related disability benefit, his claim for benefits for work-related injury before the Commission was barred by res judicata and collateral estoppel. The Court’s ruling on this issue does apply to firefighters (and policeman) throughout the State.

The court rejected the res judicata argument, which would have barred the claim entirely, relying on the fact that the Pension Board did not determine whether petitioner was or was not injured in the course and scope of his employment.  In fact, the Court found that the implication from the Board’s decision was that he was injured in the line of duty.  Regardless, the Pension Board’s determination that the claimant could resume the full duties of a firefighter as of August 3, 2009 – based on the medical examinations conducted by the Board and introduced into evidence during the hearing of the pension claim – meant that he was not disabled from duty as a firefighter and therefore could not receive a duty disability pension. This was a different issue than determining whether petitioner was injured in the course and scope of his employment. The court thus allowed the petitioner to proceed on his claim for benefits under the Act.

In further ruling, however, the court found that the claimant was barred from relitigating certain issues in his workers’ compensation claim, due to collateral estoppel.  Specifically, the claimant was barred from relitigating whether he was disabled after August 3, 2009 and whether he was able to return to work.  The Court ruled that the petitioner was prevented from claiming entitlement to benefits after August 3, 2009 at the Commission because the Pension Board had found that he was not disabled after that date and could return to work with the fire department.  Because this issue was identical in both cases, the parties in both proceedings were the same or in privity with each other, and because the claimant had a full and fair opportunity to contest the issue before the Board, his claim for benefits after August 3, 2009 was barred by collateral estoppel.

It is important that municipal employers consider the similarities and differences between a workers’ compensation claim and proceedings before the city’s pension board involving its firefighters and police personnel.  Even though claimants will be able to seek benefits from both sources simultaneously, decisions made in a proceeding for a disability pension may prevent a claimant from attempting to litigate those issues a second time before the IWCC.

Thanks to Partner Jack Shanahan and attorney Michael Bantz for the summary and discussion.

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