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

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  2014_IL_App_1st_131568.pdf (163 KB).

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