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Huge Legal Win for First Responders as Peoria PSEBA Ordinance Struck Down by Court

Written by Brent Eames

February 15, 2021

This month, the Third District Appellate Court handed an enormous victory to injured first responders all across the State of Illinois by striking down the PSEBA ordinance of the City of Peoria which attempted to make it much more challenging for its injured employees to qualify for PSEBA benefits.

The Public Safety Employee Benefits Act (820 ILCS 320/1) (“PSEBA”) is an Illinois law which provides for the payment of the full premium of an employer’s health insurance plan for any firefighter or police officer who suffers a catastrophic injury or is killed in the line of duty.  This benefit is also provided for the injured or deceased employee’s spouse and any dependent children.

If a firefighter or police officer suffers a “catastrophic injury,” PSEBA benefits will be awarded if the catastrophic injury occurred under one of the following circumstances:

  1. the officer’s response to fresh pursuit;
  2. the officer or firefighter’s response to what is reasonably believed to be an emergency;
  3. an unlawful act perpetrated by another; or
  4. during the investigation of a criminal act

When PSEBA was enacted into law, the legislature never properly defined what qualifies as a “catastrophic injury” for purposes of qualifying for PSBEA benefits. This was left to our courts. When this question was challenged by litigants, the Illinois Supreme Court has twice declared that suffering a catastrophic injury under PSEBA is synonymous with being awarded a line-of-duty disability pension under the Pension Code. Nevertheless, in an effort to escape their legal obligations to pay these benefits, many municipalities across Illinois have enacted local ordinances which attempt to redefine the standard for what qualifies as a catastrophic injury to go above and beyond what our Supreme Court has established. One such example was in Peoria, where the city enacted a PSEBA ordinance which attempted to define a catastrophic injury as requiring evidence that the injured first responder is permanently prevented from performing any gainful work. This is a much more stringent standard than what the Supreme Court had declared, which just requires evidence that the injured first responder is permanently disabled from full duty police work or firefighting consistent with the requirement to obtain a line of duty disability pension.

After the Peoria ordinance was enacted, a lawsuit was filed by the International Association of Firefighters Local 50 seeking to invalidate the ordinance based upon the Supreme Court precedent. This matter made it’s way up to the Third District Appellate Court, where a unanimous panel of justices ruled for the union and struck down the Peoria ordinance. The Appellate Court held that despite possessing home rule authority, the City was without authority to overrule the Supreme Court regarding its interpretation of the PSEBA statute. Given that its ordinance was inconsistent with the substantive requirements of PSEBA, the City’s ordinance was not a valid exercise of the City’s home rule authority, and it was struck down.

This decision is a huge win for first responders across Illinois. If your municipality has enacted a similar PSEBA ordinance which is inconsistent with the established law, the ordinance should likewise be challenged and invalidated. If you have any questions about PSEBA, please contact Brent Eames for a free consultation.

The content of this blog is intended for informational purposes only and does constitute or establish an attorney-client relationship, nor constitute legal advice. If you wish to discuss any further aspect of the material contained herein, please contact attorney for first responders, Brent Eames, at Eames Law Group, Ltd.

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