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Monday, November 27, 2017

Pension Board's Denial of Pension Application Vacated Due to Bias

After a fire lieutenant with a fire protection district (District) was denied a disability pension by the Pension Board, she sued the Board claiming that she did not receive a fair hearing due to alleged bias by some members on the Board. The trial court upheld the Board’s decision to deny the pension application, but on appeal, that decision was reversed and the case was sent back with directions to hold a new hearing.  Naden v. The Firefighters’ Pension Fund of the Sugar Grove Fire Protection District, 2017 IL App. (2d) 160698 (November 17, 2017).

Naden had been employed by the District since 1996.  In 2014, she requested a medical leave of absence.  In her request, she noted several instances of sexual harassment.  The District initiated an investigation into the sexual harassment claims, but it never concluded. Naden did not return to work following her approved leave, and applied for pension benefits.  The Board denied her application, and determined she was not eligible to receive either a line-of-duty or a non-duty pension. 

On appeal, Naden argued she did not receive a fair hearing before the Pension Board because three of the five members of the Board were also the firefighters she accused of sexually harassing her during her employment. In addressing Naden’s allegations of bias on the part of the Board, the appellate court noted that “a personal interest or bias can be pecuniary or any other interest that may have an effect on the impartiality of the decisionmaker.” Because the District never concluded its investigation, the appellate court found  there was “something of a running controversy between the Plaintiff and the three members” and that where there is an actual incentive for bias, recusal is required. The appellate court concluded that because each of the three board members named by Naden had a material, direct, personal interest in denying her disability claim, their bias rendered the Board’s decision unsustainable. It vacated the Board’s decision and remanded the case with instructions to the Board to hold a new hearing on Naden’s application for disability benefits. 

Post Authored by Jessi DeWalt, Ancel Glink


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