In order to qualify for a line-of-duty disability pension, a police officer in Illinois must be disabled as the result of an injury resulting from an “act of duty” as defined by the Pension Code. The mere fact that an officer is on duty at the time he or she is injured is not enough to qualify the officer for a line-of-duty disability pension.
Paul Griffin, a detective with the New Lenox Police Department, injured his left knee on September 7, 2016. When Detective Griffin reported to work at 8 a.m. on that date, his supervisor informed him that he was to testify before a grand jury at the county courthouse pursuant to a subpoena. Detective Griffin drove his assigned vehicle to the courthouse along with his partner, Jeff Furlong. Upon arriving at the courthouse, Detective Griffin parked the vehicle and carried paperwork, police reports and the subpoena into the courtroom.
After his testimony had concluded, Detective Griffin and his partner Jeff Furlong left the courthouse and walked towards the vehicle with the intention of driving back to the police station. While getting into the vehicle, Detective Griffin slipped off the curb, hyper extended his knee, and grabbed the car door to keep from falling. He immediately noted pain in the front and rear of his left knee. He returned to the police department and reported the incident to his supervisor.
Detective Griffin sought medical treatment that eventually led to a knee replacement in August of 2017. He resigned his position with the department on October 10, 2017. The resignation was unrelated to the knee injury that occurred on September 7, 2016.
Detective Griffin applied to the Board of Trustees of the Village of New Lenox Police Pension Fund for a line-of-duty disability pension pursuant to section 3-114.1 of the Illinois Pension Code. In the alternative, he requested a not-on-duty disability pension. In accordance with section 3-115 of the Code, Detective Griffin was examined by three physicians.
THE EXAMINING PHYSICIANS
The first physician was Dr. Junaid Makda, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon. Dr. Makda opined that Detective Griffin was permanently disabled, and that the disability was a direct result of a permanent aggravation of a pre-existing condition. The second examining physician was Dr. Leon Huddleston, a board-certified physical medicine and rehabilitation physician. Dr. Huddleston diagnosed pre-existing degenerative changes in the left knee that were aggravated by the September 7, 2016 accident. Dr. Huddleston also noted that Detective Griffin would have difficulty stooping and bending due to limited range of motion and pain in the left knee. The final examining doctor was Dr. Daniel Samo, an occupational and environmental medicine physician. Dr. Samo noted that prior to the September 7, 2016 accident, Detective Griffin had been fully functioning and asymptomatic in regard to his underlying preexisting degenerative left knee condition. Dr. Samo further opined that the September 7, 2016 injury caused Detective Griffin’s left knee condition to become symptomatic.
THE BOARD’S DECISION
The Board found that Detective Griffin was disabled by the September 7, 2016 accident. The Board denied a line-of-duty disability pension, and instead awarded a not-on-duty disability pension. In support of their decision the Board pointed to the following facts:
- Numerous citizens walk to and from buildings with paper in their hands every day.
- Detective Griffin was not on patrol or responding to a call when he misstepped.
- Detective Griffin had a motive to be dishonest in his testimony because he would be unable to return to work if the Board denied him benefits.
- Detective Griffin only applied for disability benefits after learning that he was under investigation and would likely be discharged.
- The Board found Detective Griffin to be less than credible.
The Board decided that slipping off a curb while getting into a car to return to the police station does not involve special risks. Detective Griffin argued that he was engaged in an act of duty when he was injured because he was complying with a direct order to complete a required duty as detective, and therefore faced special risks.
THE CIRCUIT COURT’S DECISION
Detective Griffin sought review of the Board’s decision before the circuit court of Will County, naming the Village of New Lenox Police Pension Fund, the Board of Trustees of the Village of New Lenox Police Pension Fund, and the Village of New Lenox as defendants. The court reversed the Board’s decision. Subsequently, the Board appealed the case to the Illinois Appellate Court.
THE APPELLATE COURT’S DECISION
The appellate court reversed the circuit court, and agreed with the Board. In support of its decision confirming the Board’s award of a non-duty disability pension, the appellate court reviewed the requirements for a line-of duty disability pension. Section 3-114.1(a) of the Pension Code provides for a line-of-duty disability pension:
If a police officer as the result of sickness, accident or injury incurred in or resulting from the performance of an act of duty, is found to be physically or mentally disabled for service in the police department, so as to render necessary his or her suspension or retirement from the police service, the police officer shall be entitled to a disability retirement pension.
A police officer shall be considered “on duty” while on any assignment approved by the chief of the police department of the municipality he or she serves, whether the assignment is within or outside the municipality.
A police officer is not always performing an act of duty within the meaning of the Code just because he or she is “on duty.” There has to be something more than just being “on duty” to receive a line-of-duty pension. The disability must be the result of an accident or injury sustained in the performance of an “act of duty”. 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, 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.
The Appellate Court conclude that Detective Griffin was not performing an act of duty when he was injured on September 7, 20176. He was walking toward his police vehicle while carrying paperwork in the courthouse parking lot. He was not looking for crimes, and nobody contacted him on his department phone or radio to respond to any emergency call or service. He was not protecting the public, responding to a disturbance, patrolling or addressing a public safety hazard. He had completed all of his duties related to the grand jury at the time he slipped and injured his left knee. Therefore, the court opined, Detective Griffin was not acting in a way different than a citizen in the ordinary walks of life.
- The court is aware that many of the duties performed by police are the same or similar in civilian occupations. The court is also aware that there is no comparable civilian occupation to that of a police officer responding to the call of a citizen. When police officers are called upon to respond to a citizen, they must have their attention and energies directed toward being prepared to deal with any eventuality, and unlike an ordinary citizen, the police officer has no option as to whether to respond. It is the duty of the police to respond regardless of any hazards they encounter.
- In this case, Detective Griffin was acting in a capacity in which civilians commonly act. Ordinary citizens are called upon every day to testify in court and face the same risk of slipping on a curb when returning to their vehicle with papers in hand. The court found that although Detective Griffin’s presence in the courthouse parking lot was the result of a department requirement, there was no evidence that he was exposed to special risks as a result.
- The mere act of carrying police reports and subpoenas will not be enough to expose an officer to special risk. This is different from the act of an officer serving a notice to appear which has been held to be an act of duty. According to the appellate court, the type of documents Detective Griffin was carrying wasn’t enough to render Detective Griffin’s act of walking to his vehicle an “act of duty.”
Applying for a disability pension as a first responder can be a tricky proposition. When applying for disability benefits, first responders are allowed to hire a lawyer to assist them with their application and represent them in proceedings before Pension Board. If you are a first responder and have questions about either a work injury or a disability pension application, feel free to call me for a free consultation.