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Thursday, December 10, 2020

Court Reverses Firefighter Pension Board’s Decision Terminating Disability Payments

 In Pagorek v. Board of Trustees of the City of Harvey's Firefighter Pension Fund, the Illinois Appellate Court overturned a pension fund board’s decision that had found a firefighter was no longer disabled  and did not qualify for a disability pension.

Pagorek was hired as a firefighter in 1997. In January 2005, he slipped and fell and experienced severe lower back and leg pain. Pagorek filed an application for a disability pension in November 2005. After medical evaluation, doctors concluded Pagorek could not lift loads greater than 120 pounds or carry loads greater than 100 pounds, which was required by firefighters. The pension board granted Pagorek a non-duty disability pension after a finding that he was "permanently, medically disabled."

Under the Illinois Pension Code, firefighters who are under 50 years of age who receive disability benefits are required to undergo annual medical examinations to "verify continuance of disability." In a 2017 examination, a pension board-selected doctor found that, although Pagorek was experiencing mild pain, he was no longer disabled to the point of requiring disability payments. Pagorek sought his own medical opinion from two other doctors that contradicted the board's doctor.

During a board hearing to evaluate Pagorek's disability eligibility, Pagorek stated that he had not sought physical therapy for his condition because he was uninsured for most of the time between 2007 to 2017 although he had worked two jobs while receiving disability benefits. Pagorek's counsel argued that the board's medical expert was "extremely biased" after testimony found she represented insurers and employers 99% of the time during similar proceedings. Based on the pension board's medical expert's opinion, the board terminated Pagorek's disability benefits. 

Pagorek then filed a lawsuit and the circuit court upheld the pension board's decision. However, on appeal, the appellate court found that the pension board's decision, based on one doctor's medical opinion concluding Pagorek could return to full duty, was against the manifest weight of the evidence. The board's doctor had opined that Pagorek's pain did not affect his daily life, allowing him to get physically demanding jobs. However, the court found these conclusions contradicted other medical evaluations and Pagorek's overall physical condition. Pagorek testified he could not perform daily activities like picking up his kids or bending and twisting his back without pain. Further, Pagorek's position as a satellite dish installer only required him to occasionally lift 30 lbs. satellite dishes and 50 lbs. ladders, which were far lighter than the required 120 lbs. of lifting needed as an active duty firefighter. As a result, the reviewing court reversed the board's decision that had terminated Pagorek's disability pension.

Post Authored by Mike Halpin & Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink


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