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Due Process Not Violated by Having a 3-Member Pension Board Hear a Disability Claim

February 8th, 2013

Buckner v. University Park Police Pension Fund, 2013 IL App (3d) 120231 (Feb. 1, 2013)

        The Third District Appellate Court of Illinois affirmed the decision of the University Park Police Pension Fund to deny a line of duty disability pension and award a non-duty disability pension.

Plaintiff Gwendolyn Buckner, a University Park Police Officer, injured her back falling down stairs while evacuating a burning building.  After lumbar fusion surgery, she returned to duty almost a year later, in March 2002.  By December 2002, she was released back to work with no restrictions. Four years later, in 2006, Buckner sustained back injuries in an automobile accident when she was driving home after work.  She was driving home in a department-issued, unmarked squad car.  She had the vehicle as a result of being on-call at all times, and was not responding to a call or on patrol when the accident occurred.  After a second back surgery in 2007, she was rendered physically unable to perform her job.

Filing an application for line-of-duty disability pension benefits, Buckner amended her application on its face to include a non-duty disability pension.  Two independent medical exams certified Buckner as disabled, and both cited the 2006 accident as a contributing factor.  Another independent medical exam found Buckner not disabled, and in fact able to perform unrestricted duty.  In October 2010, a three-member (out of five) Pension Board awarded a non-duty disability after denying her line of duty claim.  The Pension Board found that a disability was established, but that it did not result from or aggravated by the performance of an act of duty.  The trial court affirmed the Board’s decision, and Buckner decided to appeal.

In its ruling, the Appellate Court addressed two issues: first, whether the Board erred in denying a line of duty disability pension; and second, that her due process rights were violated in the Board’s proceedings.

The court decided the first concern after citing the special risk requirement found in the definition of an “act of duty” from the Pension Code and as applied by the courts.  In fact, as the court pointed out, an officer does not qualify for a line of duty disability for merely being on duty – yet, the inquiry must focus on the capacity in which the officer was acting at the time of the injury.  Also, an on-duty injury need only be “a causative factor” in an injury, not the sole cause.  The Court found that driving home after her shift ended did not constitute an act of duty involving a special risk; therefore, the Board’s denial of a line of duty pension request was affirmed.  As part of Buckner’s assertion, she also claimed the 2001 injury while on duty as a causative factor of her disability.  The Court rejected this as well, pointing out Buckner returned to full duty in March 2002.

Buckner also claimed the Board violated her due process rights by proceeding with only three board members.  Buckner argued the Board lacked 2 of its 5 required members.  Therefore, a unanimous decision by the remaining 3 members to award her a line of duty disability pension was required, as is mandated by the Open Meetings Act.  The court found this claim unconvincing.  The court held Buckner forfeited the issue after failing to challenge the makeup of the Board at the hearing.  Additionally, she failed to file a complaint under the Open Meetings Act, which requires complaints of violations must be filed within 60 days.  Regardless, the Court found, a quorum was necessary to approve or deny a disability pension request, and a quorum of three Board members was present.