In this case, the Illinois Appellate Court addressed the denial of a line of duty disability to a fireman who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. Gregory Prawdzik (Prawdzik) was employed as a firefighter for the Homer Township Fire Protection District Fire Department (District) starting on May 8, 2006. He also served in the Air National Guard. In 2008-2009, during his employment as a firefighter, Prawdzik was deployed for military duty in Afghanistan for 10 months.  Prawdzik testified that he encountered many life-threatening incidents while in Afghanistan, and that he felt as though his life was under constant threat and that he was going to die there. When Prawdzik returned from Afghanistan and resumed work as a firefighter for the District, he suffered from symptoms that he did not experience pre-deployment including migraine headaches, panic attacks, tightness in his chest, shortness of breath, nausea, blurred vision, irritability, sadness, emotional numbness, poor concentration, insomnia and feelings of detachment. He sought treatment, and was diagnosed by the Veterans Administration as suffering with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  He was awarded VA disability benefits for PTSD, traumatic brain injury and tinnitus.

Prawdzik experienced panic attacks and related symptoms while on duty as a firefighter in 2009 and 2010, but did not report this to the District. He also experienced panic attacks while not on duty. While attempting to complete a driving program at work, Prawdzik was having issues getting into the vehicles and driving the vehicles because the firefighting vehicles were similar to the MRAP vehicles he drove while in Afghanistan. On July 13, 2011, Prawdzik informed the district that he suffered from PTSD. HE discussed some of his experiences in Afghanistan and reported that one of the things that bothered him at work was driving the fire engine and other trucks, noting the similarity between these vehicles and the military vehicles he drove in Afghanistan.

Dr. Tracy Rogers performed a fitness for duty evaluation on August 23, 2011. Rogers diagnosed Prawdzik with PTSD and found him conditionally fit for duty, noting that certain thoughts about trauma caused Prawdzik stress and “exacerbated his symptoms” and that Prawdzik was avoiding driving the fire engine and trucks because the cabs of those vehicles reminded him of the military vehicles he drove while deployed, including a military vehicle he was trapped in after receiving a head injury.  On August 6, 2013, Prawdzik reported increased PTSD symptoms to the Veterans Administration. He related this increase to his stressful work environment and driving rigs at work. The social worker who evaluated Prawdzik opined that his PTSD symptoms were impacted by “occupational stress” and “parenting stress.”

On November 7, 2014, Prawdzik was working full duty as a firefighter when he was dispatched to an emergency call. On the way back from the call, the fire truck he was in was shifting roughly between gears. As Prawdzik tried to check the pump shift lever to fix the problem, he inadvertently hit the power switch, shutting off all the power in the vehicle while the vehicle was traveling at approximately 45 miles per hour. This reminded him of his experience in Afghanistan when his vehicle was hit by an IED, and resulted in an anxiety attack followed by a progressive worsening of his PTSD symptoms thereafter. He did not report the panic attack until November 16, 2014 when he reported having issues with PTSD and asked to go home. At that time, he was placed on modified duty and never returned to full, unrestricted firefighter duties thereafter. During the three years prior to the November 7, 2014 incident, Prawdzik had been able to perform his full, unrestricted firefighter duties despite his PTSD.

Another fitness for duty evaluation was performed on November 21, 2014. The evaluator was Dr. Wasyliw. Wasyliw concluded that Prawdzik was unable to drive fire trucks due to his anxiety issues.  Since driving trucks was a necessary requirement of Prawdzik’s employment, Wasyliw found Prawdzik unfit for duty due to generalized anxiety disorder with residual PTSD symptoms and a major depressive episode. Wasyliw wrote that Prawdzik was experiencing increased generalized anxiety in early November which worsened after the November 7, 2014 work incident, noting that Prawdzik’s anxiety disorder was “more widespread” than it had ben at the time of his August 23, 2011 fitness for duty evaluation.

A May 2015 fitness for duty evaluation concluded that Prawdzik’s panic attacks could occur at any time and were not related to any specific situation. A June 3, 2015 PTSD assessment at the VA concluded that Prawdzik’s job duties as a firefighter resembled his service related traumas and contributed to his PTSD symptoms relapse. On June 18, 2015, Prawdzik filed an application for disability benefits with the Board.

THE EXAMINING PHYSICIANS

Pursuant to Section 4-112 of the Illinois Pension Code, the Board had Prawdzik evaluated by three physicians of its choosing: Dr. Robert Reff, Dr. Stevan Weine, and Dr. Cathy Frank.

Dr. Reff’s opinions

Dr. Reff opined that Prawdzik suffers from generalized anxiety disorder with residual post traumatic symptoms that prevented Prawdzik from functioning as a firefighter. Reff acknowledged that Prawdzik’s preexisting PTSD and anxiety disorder was caused by his combat experiences in Afghanistan, but opined that Prawdzik’s disability from PTSD was, at least in part, the result of his firefighter duties:

It is my opinion that Mr. Prawdzik suffers from a disability resulting from an act of duty. It was not until the November 7, 2014 indicdent that Mr. Prawdzik experienced performance limiting anxiety again. His current episode would be considered an aggravation of his pre-existing psychiatric condition, more likely than not, caused by the incident that occurred on November 7, 2014.”

Dr. Reff also opined that Prawdzik’s disability was permanent based upon the length of time Prawdzik had suffered some degree of symptoms and the significant symptoms suffered following the November 7, 2014 incident.

The opinions of Dr. Stevan Weine

Dr. Weine opined that Prawdzik was disabled and suffered from chronic PTSD, recurrent major depression, and isolated traumatic stress symptoms. Weine wrote that over time, Prawdzik’s PTSD symptoms had diminished to the point where he no longer meets the formal criteria for PTSD, but he continues to suffer from generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder. Weine opined that the persistence and worsening of Prawdzik’s disorders as due to his exposure to stress as a firefighter / EMS and that although his conditions were initially caused by combat exposure in Afghanistan, they were exacerbated by the stress of firefighter work.

Dr. Cathy Frank’s opinions

Dr. Frank opined that Prawdzik’s PTSD prevented him from driving firefighter vehicles, and that his exposure to trauma on the job continues to aggravate his PTSD causing anxiety, hypervigilance, insomnia, and panic attacks, and that as long as he continued to drive fire fighting / paramedic vehicles he would continue to suffer aggravation of PTSD. Frank opined that Prawdzik’s job duties as a firefighter did not cause his PTSD or major depressive disorder, but that his employment as a firefighter could aggravate his PTSD at times.

THE BOARD’S DECISION

The Board issued a written order granting Prawdzik a “non-duty” disability pension pursuant to section 4-111 of the Code, but denied him a “line of duty” disability pension pursuant to section 4-110. The Board found that Prawdzik was entitled to a “non-duty” disability pension because he was “mentally permanently disabled for service in the fire service” as a result of the “sickness” of PTSD. The Board denied the “line of duty” disability pension because it found that Prawdzik’s PTSD “was not incurred in and did not result from the performance of an act of duty or the cumulative effects acts of duty.” The Board further noted that Prawdzik had experienced symptoms of PTSD, including some panic attacks, both before and after the November 2014 incident and that Dr. Wasyliw opined in 2015 that the panic attacks could occur at any time and were not related to any specific situation. The Board also found that there was no evidence to support Prawdzik’s claim that his disabling PTSD was caused by his performance of “general firefighting / EMS duties”, noting that Prawdzik was able to perform general firefighting and EMS duties (including fire rescue, fire suppression, and EMS duties) albeit with driving restrictions before and after the November 7, 2014 incident. The Board also found that even if there were evidence to support Prawdzik’s claim that general firefighting and EMS duties caused his PTSD, the claim would fail because “stress or depression resulting from general employment functions inherent in the occupation and common to all firefighters is not the equivalent of the specific acts of duty contemplated by section 4-110” of the Code. The Board concluded that the underlying cause of Prawdzik’s disabling PTSD was “external to, and independent of, any specific act of duty or to the cumulative effects of acts of duty.”

THE CIRCUIT COURT

Prawdzik filed a complaint for administrative review of the decision in the circuit court of Will County. The court affirmed the Board’s decision, but noted that “[h]ad the [court] been a member of the administrative board, the [court] might have reached a different conclusion.” The circuit court ruled that regardless of the standard of review that applied, the record did not justify reversal.

THE APPELLATE COURT

The appellate court reviews the decision of the Board, not the circuit court’s determination. Factual findings made by an administrative agency are deemed prima facie true and correct, and can be reversed only if they are against the manifest weight of the evidence. An agency’s decision is against the manifest weight of the evidence only if the opposite conclusion is clearly apparent, and it is particularly within the Board’s province to accord weight to the evidence, resolve conflicts presented by the evidence, and determine the credibility of witnesses.

However, the deference afforded to the Board decision is not boundless. Even when the decision is supported by some evidence, which if undisputed would sustain the administrative finding, it is not sufficient if upon consideration of all the evidence the finding is against the manifest weight. Whether the facts, as found by the Board, satisfy the standard for awarding a line-of-duty disability pension is a mixed question of law and fact subject to the clearly erroneous standard of review. This is a less deferential standard than the manifest weight of the evidence standard. Under this standard, we should affirm the Board’s decision unless, after reviewing the entire record, the court is left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.

To recover a line of duty disability pension, a claimant need not prove that his job duties were the sole or even the primary cause of his disability. Rather, it is sufficient that an act of duty was an “aggravating, contributing or exacerbating factor” in the ensuring disability. An “act of duty” is defined in the Illinois Pension Code as “[a]ny act imposed on an active fireman by the ordinances of a city, or by the rules or regulations of its fire department, or any act performed by an active fireman while on duty, having for its direct purpose the saving of the life or property of another person.” 40 ILCS 5/6-110.

The Board argued before the appellate court that Prawdzik’s claim is governed by a stricter causation standard because Prawdzik alleges a mental or psychological injury rather than a physical injury. The Board alleged that the Illinois Supreme Court has held that in cases involving mental disabilities, the claimant must prove that the act of duty was the sole cause of his disabling injury, not merely a contributing cause.

The Board is referencing the case of Robbins v. Board of Trustees, 177 Ill. 2d 533 (Ill. 1997), which dealt with a line of duty disability pension application by a police officer, not a firefighter. The Illinois Pension Code defines “act of duty” very differently for police officers than for firefighters. For police officers, the Code defines “act of duty” as any act of police duty “inherently involving special risk, not ordinarily assumed by a citizen in the ordinary walks of life” that is imposed on a policeman by statues, ordinances, or regulations, or “any act of heroism” having for its direct purpose the saving of a life or property of a person other than the policeman. 40 ILCS 5/5-113. For firefighters, the Code defines “act of duty” more broadly to include “any act imposed on an active fireman by the ordinances of a city, or by the rules or regulations of its fire department, or any act performed by an active fireman while on duty, having for its direct purpose the saving of the life or property of another person.” 40 ILCS 5/6-110. These divergent statutory definitions of “act of duty” entail different standards for awarding “line of duty” disability pensions to police officers as compared to firefighters.

For a police officer to receive a line of duty disability pension related to mental or psychological injury, the disabling stress must result entirely from a specific, identifiable act of duty that is unique to police work and that involves a special risk not confronted by members of the general public. This causation standard does not apply to firefighters. Unlike a police officer, a firefighter seeking a line of duty disability pension may establish that the disability is caused by an “act of duty” even if work-related stress was a contributing cause, rather than the sole cause of the disabling psychological condition.

Prawdzik presented evidence of a specific, work-related traumatic incident that aggravated his preexisting symptoms and rendered his preexisting psychological condition permanently disabling. His claim was not based entirely upon allegations of stress or depression resulting from general employment functions, and the manifest weight of the evidence establishes that Prawdzik’s psychological disability was caused, at least in part, by his work duties. The appellate court found that even when all reasonable inferences were drawn in the Board’s favor, an opposite conclusion was clearly apparent.

 

TAKEAWAYS

  • The decision by a Board is an agency decision, and the standard of review is a manifest weight standard. An agency’s decision is against the manifest weight of the evidence only if the opposite conclusion is clearly evident.
  • Whether the facts found by the Board satisfy the standard for awarding a line of duty disability pension is a mixed question of law and fact subject to the clearly erroneous standard of review. While less deferential than the manifest weight standard, it is still significantly deferential to the agency’s decision.
  • Police Officers and Firefighters are treated differently when it comes to line of duty disability pensions. When it comes to firefighters, an “act of duty” is any act imposed on an active fireman by the ordinances of a city, or by the rules or regulations of its fire department, or any act performed by an active fireman while on duty, having for its direct purpose the saving of the life or property of another person. 40 ILCS 5/6-110. For police officers, an “act of duty” is defined as any act of police inherently involving special risk, not ordinarily assumed by a citizen in the ordinary walks of life, imposed on a policeman by the statutes of this State or by the ordinances or police regulations of the city in which this Article is in effect or by a special assignment; or any act of heroism performed in the city having for its direct purpose the saving of the life or property of a person other than the policeman. 40 ILCS 5/5-113.
  • Unlike a police officer, a firefighter seeking a line of duty disability pension may establish that his disability is caused by an “act of duty” even if work-related stress was a contributing cause, rather than the sole cause, of his disabling psychological condition.

If you are a firefighter or a police offer seeking a disability pension, you are entitled to counsel. If you have questions as to whether you might be entitled to a line of duty disability pension, a non duty disability pension or an occupational disease disability pension, do not hesitate to call me for a free consultation.