CHICAGO - In a resounding victory for Burke Burns & Pinelli, Ltd., an Illinois appellate court ruled last week that a former Chicago firefighter turned convicted arsonist is not entitled to his pension. The ruling, by a 3-0 vote, overturned a Cook County judge's decision to award the pension.
Jeffrey Boyle, 51, filed suit to gain his roughly $50,000-a-year pension after the Firemen's Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago had denied his request based on Section 6-221 of the Illinois Pension Code, which states that no benefits shall be paid "to any person convicted of any felony relating to or arising out of or in connection with his service as a fireman."
Boyle was arrested in 2005 after setting a string of fires on the Northwest Side and Park Ridge over a number of years. He pleaded guilty to eight counts of arson and was sentenced to six years in prison. Boyle served two years, and upon his release unsuccessfully petitioned the Firemen's Board for his pension.
"It just doesn't make sense that [a person] should get a very good public pension after engaging in that kind of conduct," said BBP partner Vincent Pinelli, who served as lead counsel for the FABF in the appeal. "We were pleased that three judges saw it the same way the Board did. ... I think it's obviously the correct decision under the law."
In his original suit, Boyle argued he was entitled to his pension because his activities, though reprehensible, were committed while off duty, without the use of any Fire Department equipment and did not relate to his service as a fireman. A Cook County Circuit Court judge agreed. Citing Illinois Supreme Court precedents, the judge said the facts as presented did not establish a clear and specific connection between the felony committed and the firefighter's employment.
On appeal, however, Pinelli and BBP associate Christopher J. Hales were able to show that the Circuit Court had failed to properly weigh Boyle's training and experience as a firefighter in the commission of his felonious acts. While Boyle might not have used any accelerant, they argued, his overall training and 25 years of experience as a firefighter gave him specialized knowledge of arson techniques and fire response capabilities that he used in committing the arsons. In other words, Boyle's "modus operandi" had established the necessary nexus between the felonious acts and his work as a fireman.
The three-judge appellate panel agreed, holding that Boyle's own testimony at the pension hearing established that he had a level of knowledge about fires that exceeded the understanding of an ordinary citizen. In questioning from Pinelli at his Board hearing, for example, Boyle had admitted that he had learned about some methods used by arsonists to set fires and how various fires would spread, or "communicate," in fire lingo. Applying the "clearly erroneous" standard to the case, the panel found that the Board's decision to deny the pension was not clearly erroneous.
"Based on [the] evidence, it was sufficient for the Board to find that Boyle's acts of arson... were in some way connected with his employment as a firefighter at the CFD so that the causal connection was established," Justice Joy V. Cunningham wrote in the opinion. "We cannot say that the Board's finding in this regard is clearly erroneous."
Justice Cunningham was joined by Justices Maureen E. Connors and Sheldon A. Harris in the unanimous opinion.