Firefighters Claim Barred in Part by the Doctrine of Collateral Estoppel
Firefighters Claim Barred in Part by the Doctrine of Collateral Estoppel – Pension Board Decision Prohibit Claimant from Relitigating Same Issues Before Workers’ Compensation Commission.
The City of Chicago v. The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission and Joseph Locasto, 2014 Ill. App. (1st) 121507WC.
In May, 2008, petitioner was hired by the City of Chicago as a candidate in training at the Chicago Fire and Paramedic Academy. He began training to become a paramedic with the Chicago Fire Department. On May 6, 2008 and May 7, 2008, petitioner was required to participate in rigorous physical training. During the course of his training, he developed right leg cramps. He experienced severe dehydration and went to the emergency room. He was diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, acute kidney failure and compartment syndrome. He underwent surgery to release the pressure caused by the compartment syndrome and he underwent dialysis. He treated with an orthopedic surgeon, a nephrologist and a primary care physician. Within a few months, all of his treating doctors released him for regular work, but there were issues as to whether he could go back into the rigorous training to become a firefighter/paramedic for The City of Chicago. Two doctors examined him at the request of The City of Chicago and found that he could do unrestricted physical activity.
The employer paid him a year of salary continuation, but did not pay him TTD. The City did not bring him back to work and did not offer him any alternative employment. In October, 2009, he began to work part time as an IV technician at a hospital.
He filed a claim for a duty disability pension with The City of Chicago Pension Fund. The Pension Board concluded that as of August 3, 2009, petitioner was in good and stable physical condition and could have performed full duties as a paramedic. The claim for a duty disability pension was denied.
Despite the Pension Board’s ruling, petitioner filed this claim with the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission seeking TTD, TPD and maintenance benefits. The employer claimed that the workers’ compensation claim was barred under the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel because of the Pension Board’s ruling.
The Commission rejected this argument and awarded petitioner TTD benefits and TPD benefits through the date of the hearing on arbitration. The Commission chastised the employer for refusing to allow petitioner to return to work as a firefighter/paramedic, for refusing to authorize an FCE and for refusing to provide vocational assistance.
The City appealed to the Circuit Court which affirmed. The City appealed to the Appellate Court and the Appellate Court reversed significant aspects of the case in part.
The court addressed the issue of whether the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel applied to this case. The court found that the doctrine of res judicata did not apply. The court noted that res judicata could only apply if there was privity between the parties. In this case, there was not privity between the parties because the pension claim was made against the City of Chicago Fire Department Pension Fund, but the workers’ compensation claim was made against The City of Chicago. Because they are separate entities, the doctrine of res judicata cannot apply.
However, the doctrine of collateral estoppel (a similar concept) could apply. The court noted “collateral estoppel prohibits the relitigation of an issue essential to and actually decided in an earlier proceeding by the same parties or their privies.” The court stated “collateral estoppel may be asserted when: (1) the issue decided in the prior adjudication is identical to the issue in the current action; (2) the issue was “necessarily determined in the prior adjudication; (3) the party against whom estoppel is asserted was a party or in privity with a party in the prior action; (4) the party had a full and fair opportunity to contest the issue in the prior adjudication; and (5) the prior adjudication must have resulted in a final judgment on the merits.”
The court cited to McCulla v. Industrial Commission, 232 Ill. App. 3d 517 (1992) to support its conclusions. The court stated that in cases of disputed causation once a Pension board finds against a claimant, the claimant cannot relitigate that issue before the Commission. This rule of law is based on the doctrine of collateral estoppel.
In this case, the court found that some, though not all of petitioner’s claims before the Commission were barred by the prior pension decision. The court held “The Board’s decision does collaterally estop the claimant from relitigating the issues of whether he was disabled after August 3, 2009 and whether his work-related injuries rendered him unable to work as a paramedic after that date.”
Since the Pension Board decided that petitioner was fully recovered and able to perform his regular job as a paramedic as of that date, the Commission was precluded from reaching a contrary decision. The court therefore reversed the Commission’s award of TTD and TPD benefits after August 3, 2009. The court did not disturb the Commission’s award of benefits prior to that date.
Comment: This is an insightful and helpful decision from the Appellate Court concerning the issues of the applicability of final Pension Board decisions in workers’ compensation claims. Employers have frequently argued over the years that Pension Board decisions are binding on the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission. Yet, few Commission decisions support that position. This case shows that the Commission frequently and improperly refuses to accept and apply Pension Board decisions.
The McCulla decision from 1992 is an old one and should not have been ignored by the Commission as it was here. This decision helps employers. We now know that the doctrine of res judicata will not help us to defeat a workers’ compensation claim after a favorable Pension Board ruling.
However, the doctrine of collateral estoppel will aid the employer. The doctrine of collateral estoppel will serve as a bar to a claim made by an individual after a favorable Pension Board decision. The Pension Board ruling, once final, should preclude any claim for benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act which was denied by the Pension Board. Municipal employers should pay close attention to this case.