BBP wins firefighter pension case involving estate's claim for retroactive benefits

 

May 23, 2014

 

     Citing the Pension Code, precedent and policy, the Illinois Appellate Court rejected

Thursday an effort by the estate of a deceased firefighter’s widow to collect added

pension benefits from retroactive salary increases to firefighters that had been granted

after the widow’s death.

     “Any right [the widow] had to the retroactive salary increase… abated at her death,”

the First District Court held in unanimously affirming the trial court’s dismissal of the

claim.

     Elaine Hooker, who had been collecting a widow’s annuity from the Firemen’s Annuity

& Benefit Fund of Chicago (“FABF”), died on September 20, 2010.  Five months later, on

February 9, 2011, the City of Chicago and the Chicago Fire Fighters Union ratified a new

collective bargaining agreement that accorded retroactive salary increases to firefighters. 

Believing Elaine’s heirs had a right to retroactive reimbursement of Elaine’s survivor

benefits, as adjusted by the CBA, Elaine’s estate petitioned the FABF for a recalculation of

her annuity. When the FABF Board refused on grounds that a widow’s annuity is a lifetime

benefit that abates at death, Elaine’s estate filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court. 

     On April 25, 2013, the circuit court granted the FABF Board’s motion to dismiss, stating

that “[at] the time of her death, Elaine Hooker had no claim based on the terms of the

later-ratified [CBA]…” and that  “Elaine Hooker’s entitlement to survivor’s benefits abated

at her death.”   On October 13, 2013, the estate appealed.

     Citing the Pension Code’s express prohibition against the assignment of benefits, as

well as precedent and policy, the Appellate Court affirmed the trial court’s decision.

     “It is the duty of the Board members to ensure that public employee-retirees and their

dependents are the actual recipients of retirement income,” the Court quoted from a

previous holding in Reynolds v. Retirement Board of the Firemen’s Annuity & Benefit Fund,

2013 IL App (1st) 120052, in which it denied a similar claim by a widower’s estate for

increased duty death benefits granted after her death.

     “To allow the heirs of an annuitant’s estate to sue the Board would be tantamount to

declaring that the heirs have some surviving property interest in the decedent’s annuity. 

[The widow] could neither assign her widow’s annuity nor could she have made a

testamentary transfer of her widow’s annuity to anyone.  We cannot judicially allow for

lawsuits such as the instant case where the Illinois statute does not allow it, especially

where there is certainty that any funds that may be recovered from the Firemen’s Pension

Fund would be diverted to support unrelated strangers to the original

participant/fireman.”

     In perhaps a nod to the current pension crisis, the Court went on to quote another

passage from the Reynolds holding:

     “One of the most important public policy matters facing many state and municipal

governments today is how to assure that individuals who have spent their worklife in

public service will have adequate annuity income from funds not unlike the Firemen’s

Pension Fund to meet their needs and/or the needs of their widow(er) and children during

their retirement years.  [Our] decision to enforce the legislation, as written, is consistent

with the policy considerations that the funds established are fair, effective and, most

importantly, remain financially sound and solvent in providing retirement income to

retirees, their widows/widowers and orphans, as well.”

     Burke Burns & Pinelli, Ltd., senior partner Vincent D. Pinelli argued the case on behalf of

the Retirement Board of the Firemen’s Annuity & Benefit Fund. 

     The Opinion was written by Justice Fitzgerald Smith, with Justices Howse and Lavin

concurring. 

The case is Hooker v. Retirement Board of the Firemen’s Annuity & Benefit Fund of Chicago, 2014 IL App (1st) 131568.  A copy of the Opinion can be found here icon 2014_IL_App_1st_131568.pdf (163 KB).