Bremer v. City of Rockford, 2015 IL App (2d) 130920
In order to qualify for PSEBA benefits, a covered employee must have sustained a “catastrophic injury” as a result from “response to what is reasonably believed to be an emergency, an unlawful act perpetrated by another, or during the investigation of a criminal act.” See 820 ILCS 320/10. It has long been the law that a pension board’s award of a duty disability benefit meets the PSEBA requirement for a “catastrophic injury.” See Krohe v. City of Bloomington, 204 Ill.2d 392 (2003). However, whether the award of an occupational disease disability under Section 4-110.1 of the Pension Code is also synonymous with a “catastrophic injury” under PSEBA remained an unanswered question.
In Bremer, the Pension Board granted Rockford firefighter William Bremer an occupational disease disability benefit pursuant to Section 4-110.1 of the Pension Code. The Pension Board found his heart condition resulted from service in the fire department due to exposure to chemicals and toxins while fighting fires, very heavy exertion during emergency calls including lifting of people and equipment and overhaul of fire scenes. After the pension board granted his application for occupational disease disability benefits, he applied for PSEBA benefits. The City denied Bremer’s application arguing his occupational disease benefit did not constitute a “catastrophic injury” within the meaning of PSEBA.
The Second District Appellate Court first found the grant of the occupational disease disability by the pension board satisfied the “catastrophic injury” element of PSEBA. Recognizing settled case law finding “catastrophic injury” under PSEBA synonymous with grant of a line of duty disability under Section 4-110 of the Pension Code, the Court noted no meaningful distinction between a line of duty pension benefit due to cumulative acts of duty and an occupational disease disability. As such, the Appellate Court found as a matter of law that Bremer’s occupational disease disability benefit is synonymous with a “catastrophic injury” under PSEBA.
Having concluded Bremer satisfied the first requirement of PSEBA in suffering a “catastrophic injury.” the Court next turned to the issue of whether the injury occurred as the result of a response to what is reasonably believed to be an emergency. The firefighter argued he is eligible for benefits because his heart condition resulted from the cumulative effects of his responses to emergencies. In support thereof, he submitted transcripts and evidence from the pension board hearing indicating the pension board’s findings of specific acts of service that contributed to his disability. Because the pension board was required only to find whether Bremer’s heart condition resulted from service as a firefighter (as opposed to any specific acts of duty), the Appellate Court found the trial court erred in relying on those materials to reach the factual conclusion his disability resulted from response to an emergency. Opining that the question of whether an emergency exists is a factually intensive inquiry that varies from one situation to the next, the Appellate Court held a question of fact existed as to whether Bremer’s heart condition resulted from his response to an emergency. It remanded the case for further factual proceedings on that issue.
Finally, Bremer’s complaint sought attorney’s fees pursuant to the Wage Actions Act. On this matter, the Appellate Court found because Bremer was no longer an employee of the City, the relief he sought in the form of PSEBA benefits could not be considered wages under the Act. As a result, the Court held he could not seek attorney’s fees from the City.