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Firefighter Injury Legal Update:  Lack of Credible Service Due to Department Change Dooms Claim for Disability Pension

Written by Brent Eames

April 25, 2024

Firefighter Benefits
When it comes to workers’ compensation for firefighters in Illinois, disputes regarding the true cause of the injury are common.  Many employers and workers’ compensation insurance carriers will hire doctors to attempt to argue that work-related injuries are preexisting or unrelated to work.  This can have a negative impact not only on the firefighter’s workers’ compensation claim, but it can spill over into a claim for a disability pension if the injury proves to be career-ending. When a career ending injury is not clearly related to an act of duty, a solid fallback option for injured firefighters can be a non-duty disability pension under 40 ILCS 5/4-111.  Most pension boards will allow you to plead in the alternative and without prejudice, so you can request both a line-of-duty disability and a non-duty disability at the same time.  However, eligibility for a non-duty disability has an additional credible service requirement which does not exist for a line-of-duty claim.  Keep reading to learn more from one of the best workers’ compensation attorneys for fighters about a recent caselaw update regarding non-duty disability pensions which every firefighter should know. The First District Appellate Court recently handed down its decision in Wessel v. Wilmette Firefighters’ Pension Fund, 2024 IL App (1st) 230565.  In this case, the plaintiff served as a firefighter for the Village of Wilmette for just over nine years.  He voluntarily resigned from the department on January 31, 2020. He then began working for the Lake Villa Fire Protection District on February 1, 2020.  Just over a year later, he filed an application for a non-duty disability pension with the Lake Villa pension fund.  Subsequently, the Village of Lake Villa intervened into the proceedings, arguing that he was not eligible for a non-duty disability.  At or around this time, he simultaneously filed for non-duty disability pension from the Wilmette pension fund.  After a hearing, the Wilmette Board unanimously found that Mr. Wessel was not eligible for non-duty disability pension benefits from the Wilmette Pension Fund, given that he was no longer an employee of the Wilmette Fire Department, and that he had left voluntarily to take a job with another fire department.  The Board found that pursuant to the Pension Code, the plaintiff’s “last pension fund” is responsible to pay a disability pension, provided that the firefighter has at least 7 years of creditable service with the last pension fund.  The plaintiff filed a complaint for administrative review, arguing that he met the seven-year requirement of section 4-111 given his time with the Wilmette Fire Department, and it did not matter that he changed departments to Lake Villa prior to filing his application.  After the Circuit Court upheld the pension board’s decision, the plaintiff appealed to the First District Appellate Court, and the Appellate Court affirmed the Wilmette Pension Board’s decision. The Appellate Court held that the Pension Code describes two scenarios in which a firefighter could be eligible for a non-duty disability benefit. In the first, only service with the last pension fund is credited. In the second, service with multiple pension funds is combined or stacked. However, the plain language of the code makes clear that the second scenario applies only “[i]n the event a firefighter began employment with a new employer as a result of an intergovernmental agreement that resulted in the elimination of the previous employer’s fire department.” In that limited circumstance, the statute provides that “the firefighter shall not be required to have 7 years of creditable service with the last pension fund to qualify for a disability pension under Section 4-111.” Because the plaintiff did not leave the Wilmette Fire Department “due to an intergovernmental agreement that resulted in the elimination” of that department, he does not fall within this exception.  As a result, he was not eligible. The clear language of the Pension Code mandates that when it comes to entitlement to a disability pension under Section 4-111, the last pension fund is responsible to pay that disability pension, provided that the firefighter has at least 7 years of creditable service with the last pension fund.  The Wessel case confirms that per the clear language of the statute, a firefighter will not be able to combine credible service from multiple departments absent the unique situation of an intergovernmental agreement that resulted in the elimination of the previous employer’s fire department.  So, the important lesson to take away from the Wessel case is that absent the foregoing very narrow exception, a firefighter must have seven years of credible service with his or her current department before being found eligible to apply for a non-duty disability under Article IV of the Pension Code. Eames Law Group, Ltd. never stops fighting for our clients, and we will aggressively push cases to trial in order to obtain justice when municipalities or their insurance companies attempt to deny and dispute what should be valid and legitimate claims for injuries.  If an insurance company or claim handler has denied your work comp claim or refused to pay work comp benefits, you owe it to yourself to contact one of the best work comp attorneys in Chicago, to discuss your rights.  Our firm has been elected to state leadership positions in the area of work comp law, and frequently lectures to other attorneys regarding law, and trial strategies in Illinois work comp cases. We are also experienced in claims for benefits pursuant to the Public Employee Disability Act.  If you have been injured, you should immediately contact Brent Eames for a free consultation to discuss your options. The content of this blog is intended for informational purposes only and does not 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 an attorney at Eames Law Group, Ltd.

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