12-5-11; Solid and cost-conscious ruling from the IL Supreme Court on PSEBA technical issue.

As we have advised in the past, it is our strong feeling there are lots of benefits paths out there that get started and then seem to wildly expand in our reviewing courts without any scintilla of what the rulings cost taxpayers.

In Nowak v. City of Country Club Hills, 2011 IL 111838, issued December 1, 2011, the question of when does a disabled police officer’s employer have to begin picking up the cost for the health insurance of the injured officer and his family? Construing the Public Safety Employee Benefits Act (“PSEBA”), the Illinois Supreme Court reversed an appellate decision and affirmed the circuit court in ruling that the obligation attaches only when the officer is legally declared permanently disabled. The benefit is not retroactive to the date he or she suffers the injury.

Plaintiff Nowak, a full-time police officer for the City of County Club Hills, participated in the health insurance plan his local police union bargained for. Under the plan, Officer Nowak paid 20% of the insurance premium. After Nowak sustained serious injuries in the line of duty, by statute, he received his full salary for one year. After this one-year period and concomitant salary replacement benefit expired, and more than two years after the accident, Nowak applied for a line-of-duty disability pension. During the periods outlined above, Officer Nowak had continued to pay his 20% share of the family’s health insurance premium. The police pension board heard the matter and awarded Officer Nowak a line-of-duty disability pension. Once that decision was rendered, the City of Country Club Hills immediately began paying 100% of Nowak’s personal and family health insurance premium. However, they refused Officer Nowak’s request for reimbursement of the premiums Nowak had been paying since the date of the career-ending injury.

The statute pertains to an officer who “suffers a catastrophic injury,” but Section 10(a) of PSEBA is silent as to the event that triggers the employer’s obligation to pay. Therefore our highest court found the statute to be ambiguous. In reaching its conclusion, the IL Supreme Court considered the legislative history, which indicates an intent to “continue” an officer’s employer-sponsored health insurance coverage after he has been forced to take a line-of-duty disability, and considered the public policy goal of providing the mandated benefit at the lowest possible cost.

We also note this officer received full salary and continued to make precisely the same level of income by continuing to pay health care premiums until the line-of-duty disability pension kicked in. We consider that a solid outcome that shouldn’t disadvantage an injured officer and also shouldn’t put an onerous burden on taxpayers.

We appreciate your thoughts and comments. Please do not hesitate to post them on our award-winning blog. We want to disclose we represent the City of Country Club Hills but not in relation to this litigation. We also thank the folks at IRMA or the Intergovernmental Risk Management Agency who provided their expert insights into this important municipal ruling.