Sugar Grove firefighter Sara Naden says she was subject to such severe and long-term workplace harassment that she became disabled and unable to perform her job. The Sugar Grove Fire Protection District Board of Trustees reviewed her disability pension application and denied it, finding that she was not disabled.
Naden sought judicial review of the decision. She claimed that the Board of Trustees was biased against her, and that their decision was "against the manifest weight of the evidence."
The Illinois 2nd District Appellate Court recently agreed with Naden's claims, ruling that the Sugar Grove Board must reconsider her pension application and give her a second hearing.
A Biased Pension Board
Naden claimed that she had been subject to intense "criticism, ridicule, and sexual harassment by her male coworkers" for years. In 2014, she sought medical treatment for panic attacks, anxiety and physical illness she claimed were caused by the harassment.
A month later, she also filed a formal complaint detailing dozens of alleged instances of workplace harassment. Her complaint specifically named three other firefighters. Those three men served on the five-person Board of Trustees that reviewed Naden's disability pension application. One man named in Naden's harassment complaint had even been disciplined in 2010 for calling her "retarded" and "handicapped."
In its decision, the Appellate Court stated that "each of the three trustees named in Naden's complaint had a material, direct, personal interest in denying her disability claim, whether to discredit her or to retaliate against her. The degree of bias rendered the Board's decision unsustainable."
The Wrong Definition of Disability
The Court also directed the Board to consider several "evidentiary and legal issues" in Naden's new hearing. The Court said it was "troubled by the quality of the medical evidence the Board relied upon" and that the Board had incorrectly interpreted that evidence.
The Court said that the medical evidence presented at Naden's disability pension hearing relied on a "generic" definition of disability, not the specific definition used in the Illinois Pension Code. The Illinois Pension Code states that a firefighter is entitled to receive a pension if he or she is found "to be physically or mentally permanently disabled for service in the fire department."
Naden met with four physicians who submitted independent medical examinations to the Board. Three of the physicians said that Naden was not disabled because she would be able to perform comparable work in another fire department. The Board agreed that Naden was not disabled because she could perform her duties in another fire department. Therefore she could not receive a disability pension.
The Appellate Court rejected this interpretation of "disability" under the Illinios Pension Code, saying that the statute simply requires that a person be unable to work in "the fire department, not a fire department or any fire department."
As the Court put it:
"The Board's analysis would require a disability applicant to exclude the possibility of working in all other precincts, districts, and stations. That is both absurd and contrary to the statute's text."
The Court ordered the Board of Trustees to hold a new hearing on Naden's disability pension application and that it consider the evidentiary and legal issues the Court raised. The three men Naden accused of harassment cannot participate in the new hearing.
Everyone deserves to be free of harassment and discrimination in the workplace. If you have been harassed or discriminated against at work, contact the experienced employment law attorneys at Benassi & Benassi today.