Village’s Denial of PSEBA Benefits Upheld by Illinois Appellate Court

In Wilczak v. The Village of Lombard, 2016 IL App (2d) 160205 (December 5, 2016), the Second District Appellate Court affirmed a Village’s denial of benefits under the Illinois Public Employee Benefits Act (“PSEBA”) (820 ILCS 320/1, et seq.). Under PSEBA, Illinois municipalities and fire protection districts must provide lifetime health insurance benefits to public safety officers, and their spouses and dependents, who receive a line-of-duty pension for an injury sustained while responding to what is reasonably believed to be an emergency. In Wilczak, the Court determined that the firefighter applicant failed to show that he was responding to what was reasonably believed to be an emergency.

The firefighter applicant in this case sustained an injury to his shoulder while lifting a disabled man from the floor to the bed. He was unable to work following treatment for his injury, and was granted line-of-duty disability benefits, pursuant to the Illinois Pension Code. He then applied for PSEBA benefits, but the Village declined his request. The firefighter filed a complaint for declaratory judgment, arguing that he was entitled to PSEBA benefits because his injury occurred during what he reasonably believed to be an emergency. The trial court granted the Village’s motion for summary judgment, and the firefighter appealed.

On appeal to the Illinois Appellate Court, the issue was whether the shoulder injury was sustained in response to what was reasonably believed to be an emergency. The Court cited Gaffney v. Board of Trustees of the Orland Fire Protection District, 2012 IL 110012, wherein the Illinois Supreme Court defined an emergency under PSEBA as an “unforeseen circumstance involving imminent danger to a person or property requiring an urgent response.”

In applying this definition, the Court noted that the injury occurred while the firefighter was dispatched for an invalid assist, and that the firefighter should have been aware from the beginning that the dispatch call did not involve an emergency. Notably, the Court acknowledged that the firefighter subjectively believed that he was responding to an emergency, but that even if the firefighter did believe there was an emergency initially, once he arrived at the scene, he would have known it was not an emergency as the disabled man was not injured and did not require medical attention. The Court also noted that although the man needed to be moved, he was not in imminent danger and no unforeseen circumstances arose during the response. The Court concluded that the firefighter’s belief that he was responding to an emergency was not reasonable and upheld the Village’s denial of PSEBA benefits.

Generally, the scope of PSEBA’s applicability has been construed liberally in Illinois courts. The Wilczak case is an example of a case where the Appellate Court limited the scope of PSEBA, and is an important case for municipalities and fire protection districts to be aware of.

Thanks to attorney Allison Mecher for the excellent summary of this important case. Allison works out of the Chicago offices of I&F.