BBP Overturns Police Pension Board Decision Despite 2 Adverse Expert Opinions

A south suburban Chicago police officer injured when a driver slammed into his patrol car while the police officer was protecting the scene of a car accident is entitled to a line of duty disability pension, contrary to the medical opinions of two doctors appointed by the local police pension board, the Illinois Appellate Court ruled last Friday.

Alan Hampton, 46, a patrol officer for the Village of Bolingbrook Police Department, was positioning his squad car to protect the scene of an accident at the intersection of Remington Boulevard and Veterans Parkway in Bolingbrook on the late afternoon of December 20, 2016, when a car suddenly plowed into his driver's side door. The impact spun his patrol car around and the air bags deployed. Hampton had to be extricated from the vehicle and taken to a nearby hospital by ambulance, where it was determined that he had injured his left shoulder.

Hampton underwent extensive therapy over the ensuing year, but the pain in his shoulder continued. Unable to perform his full police duties, and with no opportunity for a desk assignment, he retired and filed a disability pension application in December 2017. When the Bolingbrook Police Pension Fund denied the claim, Hampton filed suit for administrative review.

Finding that the vast majority of the medical evidence in the record showed that Hampton had indeed suffered a debilitating left shoulder injury in the accident that rendered him unable to resume his full unrestricted duties as a patrol officer, a Will County Circuit Court judge reversed the decision of the pension board and awarded the police officer a line of duty disability pension under Article 3 of the Illinois Pension Code. Last Friday, the Third District Appellate Court unanimously affirmed the Circuit Court.

While the Appellate Court noted that, under established precedent, it is not “to reweigh evidence or to make an independent fact determination,” it is nonetheless required “to determine if the credible evidence, as weighed by the administrative agency, supports the finding of the agency.”

In this case, Burke Burns & Pinelli, Ltd. ("BBP"), was successful in convincing both the circuit court and the appellate court to find that competent evidence supporting the Board’s decision was lacking, in part through its diligent efforts in creating a thorough record at the hearing that the courts could then rely on in administrative review.

Noting that there was no dispute that Hampton had been subject to a high-impact collision while on duty and positioning his vehicle to protect the scene of a car accident, that he had to be extricated from his police car and transported to a hospital by ambulance, that an MRI taken shortly after the crash showed a labral tear in his left shoulder, and that four of the doctors who examined the police officer, including one of the pension board’s three independent medical examiners (IMEs), had determined Hampton to be disabled, the Appellate Court agreed with BBP that the opinions of the Board’s other two doctors that the police officer was not disabled were inconsistent with the facts in the record and, therefore, not credible.

“Considering all the evidence in the record, and the fact that the Board erred in relying on certain evidence in support of its decision that Hampton was not disabled, we conclude that the Board’s decision was against the manifest weight of the evidence,” the Court wrote.

In reversing the Board’s original decision, the circuit court had found material deficiencies in the IME reports of the two physicians relied upon by the pension board. Specifically, the circuit found that both IMEs relied on an FCE [Functional Capacity Exam] that: (i) did not have a job description for a Bolingbrook police officer position; (ii) noted Hampton’s unquestioned complaints of pain during the test; and (iii) concluded only that he “may attempt a return to work pending a physician’s recommendation.” However, Hampton’s treating doctor did not return him to full duty, and the record showed that Hampton continued to experience painful locking episodes and increased pain and stiffness in the shoulder.

The Appellate Court agreed, noting that the job description of a police officer for the village specifically required the officer to have the physical ability “to subdue resisting individuals, lift and carry heavy equipment and injured/deceased persons, and manually push stalled motor vehicles.”

The Appellate Court further found that the Board’s decision to discount Hampton’s testimony on the basis that he had failed “to attend numerous scheduled physical therapy sessions” was not supported by the record. Nor was it appropriate, the Court held, for the Board to discount a subsequent FCE that found Hampton unable to return to full duty because the examination was conducted by a physical therapist, with unknown qualifications, rather than a medical doctor. The original FCE, the Court noted, was similarly not conducted by a medical doctor, but rather by a certified trainer.

The case is Hampton v. Board of Trustees of the Bolingbrook Police Pension Fund, et al., 2021 IL App (3d) 190419. The Appellate Court opinion can be found here.Order - Hampton 2021 01 29

Vincent D. Pinelli and Martin T. Burns of Burke Burns & Pinelli, Ltd., represented the police officer at the Pension Board hearing and in the administrative review proceedings.

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