Fassbinder v. Minneapolis Fire Dept. Relief Ass'n

Decision Date13 May 1977
Docket NumberNo. 46328,46328
Citation254 N.W.2d 363
CourtMinnesota Supreme Court

Syllabus by the Court

1. Defendant failed to raise below the issue of the timeliness of plaintiff's application for a pension and therefore the issue is not before the court on this appeal.

2. In failing to have plaintiff examined by its physician, defendant did not comply with the procedure established in its articles and bylaws to be followed in considering an application for a disability pension.

3. In the circumstances of this case, the district court properly awarded plaintiff a disability pension from the date of his application until defendant's formal denial, even though no finding of disability for that period was made.

4. In the circumstances of this case, plaintiff has failed to demonstrate sufficient bias on the part of defendant's board of trustees to compel as a matter of law that the board be reconstituted to consider plaintiff's pension application.

Harvey E. Skaar and Stanley P. Jacobson, Minneapolis, for appellant.

James Malcolm Williams and John R. Graham, Minneapolis, for respondent.

Heard before KELLY, TODD and MacLAUGHLIN, JJ., and considered and decided by the court en banc.

KELLY, Justice.

Defendant appeals from an order of the Hennepin County District Court denying a new trial and from a judgment ordering it to pay plaintiff a pension for a period of 5 years and to reconstitute its board of trustees in order to reconsider plaintiff's application for a disability pension. We affirm in part and reverse in part.

Plaintiff joined the Minneapolis Fire Department as a firefighter in March 1960. He applied for and was admitted to membership in defendant Minneapolis Fire Department Relief Association (MFDRA). The MFDRA is a corporation formed pursuant to Minn.St. 69.25 to 69.53. It is organized and run by firemen. Membership in the organization is mandatory, although the Association may exclude applicants who are poor health risks. Minn.St. 69.055, subd. 3, 69.29. The affairs of the MFDRA are managed by its board of trustees, composed of seven members of the Association and the city attorney, ex officio. Contributions to the MFDRA were regularly deducted from plaintiff's salary, entitling him to the various benefits sick, death, funeral, pension provided by the Association.

On April 25, 1969, plaintiff was suspended from duty because a woman occupied the captain's bed in the fire station with him. 1 He returned to perform light duties from June 11 to June 27. The Civil Service Commission of Minneapolis discharged plaintiff from the fire department on June 27, 1969, on the ground of disgraceful conduct, and its action was affirmed on plaintiff's appeal to district court in November 1969.

On July 24, 1969, plaintiff filed with the MFDRA an application for a disability pension, maintaining that alcoholism had disabled him from satisfactorily performing his duties and had caused the incident that brought about his discharge. 2 At its regular monthly meeting on July 28, 1969, the MFDRA's board of trustees determined that plaintiff was not entitled to a disability pension. This determination was made without referring plaintiff to the Association physician for a medical examination and without entering the decision in the minutes of the meeting. 3 Plaintiff appeared with his attorney at this meeting but it was not a hearing on his application. He was not informed of the board's decision, other than by not receiving benefits.

In October 1972, plaintiff initiated the instant action demanding a refund of his contributions to the MFDRA, or, in the alternative, a hearing on his application and the award of a disability pension. Plaintiff was referred to the MFDRA's physician, Dr. Frank J. Ankner, on October 31, 1974. It was Dr. Ankner's opinion that plaintiff was not presently disabled nor was he unable to perform the duties of a firefighter at the time of his discharge. The board of trustees then held a hearing on January 17, 1975, with respect to plaintiff's eligibility for a disability pension. Counsel and three witnesses appeared on plaintiff's behalf. On February 10, 1975, the board issued detailed findings, acknowledging that plaintiff had a drinking problem but determining that it did not interfere with his duties, and, therefore, denied plaintiff's application. The board did not consider plaintiff's fire department efficiency records nor did it consider alcoholism as the cause of plaintiff's misconduct. Pursuant to article VII, § 9 of the bylaws of the MFDRA, plaintiff filed written objections to the board's denial.

Plaintiff's action was heard in district court beginning February 24, 1975. The trial court found that the board's failure to refer plaintiff to its physician and enter its determination in the minutes breached plaintiff's membership agreement, and that the board failed to consider all available evidence at the hearing in February 1975, and that its decision to deny plaintiff's application was arbitrary, capricious, and oppressive. It further found that plaintiff could not receive a fair hearing before the board of trustees as it was then constituted. It ordered the MFDRA to pay plaintiff a disability pension for the period from the time of his application to the board's denial of it in February, and remanded plaintiff's application to the Association with instructions to reconvene and appoint a panel of MFDRA members other than those who participated in prior considerations of the application.

This appeal presents four issues:

(1) Was plaintiff's application timely?

(2) Did the board of trustees act within its discretion in 1969 in considering plaintiff's application?

(3) Did the district court properly award plaintiff a disability pension absent a finding of disability?

(4) Was the district court's order to reconstitute the board of trustees for consideration of plaintiff's application justified?

1. Defendant argues initially that plaintiff's application for a disability pension was not presented within the 30-day period prescribed by Minn.St. 69.43. That statute provides in part: "No allowances for such disabilities shall be made unless notice of the disability and application for benefits on account thereof shall be made by, or on behalf of, the disabled member to the secretary of the association within 30 days after the beginning of the disability." Plaintiff first gave notice with his application on July 24, 1969, some 90 days after his suspension. Defendant did not raise this issue below, 4 however, and we need not consider it on this appeal. E. g., McGovern v. Lutz, 242 Minn. 397, 65 N.W.2d 637 (1954).

2. Defendant next challenges the district court's conclusions that the board of trustees acted improperly in 1969 in denying plaintiff's application for a disability pension. In Stevens v. Minneapolis Fire Dept. Relief Assn.,124 Minn. 381, 145 N.W. 35 (1914), this court established that the relationship between a member and the MFDRA is contractual in nature, that members contribute part of their salaries and in turn are insured for death and disability. See, Sandell v. St. Paul Police Relief Assn., Minn., 236 N.W.2d 170, 173 (1975); 3 McQuillin, Municipal Corporations (3 ed.) § 12.172. The contract between the parties consists of relevant statutes and the articles and bylaws of the MFDRA. Consistently with the principles above, the district court found that the board failed to follow in plaintiff's case the procedure set forth in the Association's articles and bylaws, 5 which require the board to refer plaintiff to the Association physician for a medical examination and to enter in the minutes their denial of plaintiff's application, and thereby breached plaintiff's membership agreement.

Defendant argues that the board was justified in not referring plaintiff to the Association physician because the referral is primarily for the benefit of the board, a requirement that the board should be able to waive in disposing of "insubstantial" claims. In support of its position, defendant cites Police Pension & Relief Bd. of Denver v. Goldman, 486 P.2d 469 (Colo.App.1971). There, plaintiff, a police surgeon, sought sick leave benefits because of injuries to his back. After taking testimony and receiving medical reports, the relief board denied his application. The district court reversed, citing as one ground the failure of the relief board to require an investigating committee to investigate plaintiff's claim as mandated by the Denver city charter. A court of appeals reversed the district court, conceding that the relief board had not followed proper procedure, and stated:

"We conclude that the investigating committee is an arm of the Board and that the Board had jurisdiction to hear evidence and make determination as to plaintiff's physical condition without a prior report of the investigating committee, and that the finding of the Board, if supported by competent evidence, was binding upon plaintiff." 486 P.2d 472. (Italics supplied.)

The Goldman case is readily distinguishable from the instant appeal, for there is no indication here that the board's determination was supported by competent evidence. Indeed, the board considered no medical evidence in denying the disability pension. Moreover, we think it unwise to sanction board discretion to forego a medical examination in evaluating disability applications it perceives as insubstantial. Such a practice would contribute to arbitrariness in the board's decision.

" * * * From what has been said in reference to the rights acquired by members of the fire department, it follows that they have certain vested rights in and to the relief which the association may not arbitrarily destroy. While it is true that the articles of association and the by-laws provide that the determination by the association of questions of disability and...

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4 cases
  • Christensen v. Mpls. Mun. Emp. Retire. Bd.
    • United States
    • Minnesota Supreme Court
    • March 18, 1983
    ...in public pensions. See Donaldson v. Mankato Policemen's Benefit Ass'n, 278 N.W.2d 533 (Minn.1979); Fassbinder v. Minneapolis Fire Department Relief Ass'n, 254 N.W.2d 363 (Minn.1977); Sandell v. St. Paul Police Relief Ass'n, 306 Minn. 262, 236 N.W.2d 170 (1975); Sylvestre v. State, 298 Minn......
  • Dear v. Minneapolis Fire Dept. Relief Ass'n
    • United States
    • Minnesota Court of Appeals
    • February 4, 1992
    ...or wrong. Id. Where an issue was not raised in proceedings below, this court need not consider it. Fassbinder v. Minneapolis Fire Dep't Relief Ass'n, 254 N.W.2d 363, 366 (Minn.1977). While the Board arguably raised the issue of retroactivity in the lower tribunal, there is nothing in the re......
  • Axelson v. Minneapolis Teachers' Retirement Fund Ass'n
    • United States
    • Minnesota Supreme Court
    • March 8, 1996
    ...671, 675 (Minn.1990). We have analogized a public retirement fund board to an administrative agency. Fassbinder v. Minneapolis Fire Dep't Relief Ass'n, 254 N.W.2d 363, 368 (Minn.1977). Axelson's claim to the retirement service credits is based on the doctrine of promissory estoppel, which i......
  • Nichols v. Borst
    • United States
    • Minnesota Court of Appeals
    • May 16, 1989
    ...capacity when reviewing appellant's claim for reinstatement of disability benefits. Fassbinder v. Minneapolis Fire Department Relief Association, 254 N.W.2d 363, 370 (Minn.1977) (MFDRA's board of trustees acts in quasi-judicial capacity when passing on applicants' claims); see also Stevens ......

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