Stimeling v. Peoria Pub. Sch. Dist. 150

Decision Date27 July 2018
Docket NumberAppeal No. 3-17-0567
Citation2018 IL App (3d) 170567,110 N.E.3d 337
Parties Steven STIMELING, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. PEORIA PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICT 150, a Municipal Corporation, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtUnited States Appellate Court of Illinois

Shane M. Voyles, of Springfield, for appellant.

Stanley B. Eisenhammer, Babak Bakhtiari, and Christopher L. Schaeffer, of Hodges, Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Rodick & Kohn LLP, of Arlington Heights, for appellee.

JUSTICE SCHMIDT delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

¶ 1 Plaintiff, Steven Stimeling, suffered an on-the-job injury while working as a "security officer" or "school resource officer" for defendant, Peoria Public School District 150 (District). When he returned to work three days later, he performed only clerical and administrative tasks. He continued working in a clerical and administrative role until the District terminated his employment approximately two years later. After his termination, plaintiff filed suit seeking benefits under the Public Employee Disability Act (Disability Act) ( 5 ILCS 345/1 (West 2016) ) and Public Safety Employee Benefits Act (Benefits Act) ( 820 ILCS 320/10 (West 2016) ). The parties filed and argued cross-motions for summary judgment. The motions disputed whether the District employed plaintiff as a "law enforcement officer" entitled to Disability Act and Benefits Act benefits. The trial court entered an order granting summary judgment in the District's favor. Plaintiff appeals this order. We affirm the trial court's judgment.

¶ 2 BACKGROUND
¶ 3 I. Plaintiff's Employment

¶ 4 The District hired plaintiff as a "security agent" in March 1994. Some of his job responsibilities included patrolling school hallways and restrooms, checking hall passes, clearing school buildings of unauthorized visitors, directing traffic in school parking lots, "assisting as directed by school authorities in stopping disturbances and undue distractions" on school grounds, and "assisting all law enforcement officers whenever possible."

¶ 5 The District arranged for plaintiff to receive police training and certification through the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board (ILETSB). He became certified as a police officer for the "Peoria Public School Police Department." Plaintiff utilized his training and certification to work as a police officer for the Peoria Park District, the Eureka Police Department, and the Marquette Heights Police Department.

¶ 6 In August 2011, the District imposed a new policy, titled "Board Policy on School Resource Officers" (Board Policy 5:400), which changed the name of "campus police officers" or "security agents" to "school resource officers." The policy characterized resource officers as "district truant officers" under the School Code ( 105 ILCS 5/26-5 (West 2016) ). The policy explicitly authorized resource officers to "arrest" students only for truancy violations; resource officers lacked authority to issue citations or investigate any nontruancy crime.

¶ 7 In 2012, the ILETSB informed the District that school resource officers could no longer receive police training unless the District demonstrated its legal authority to maintain a police department. The District eventually conceded that it lacked such authority. The ILETSB thereafter designated the "Peoria Public School Police Department" inactive and discontinued police training for the District's resource officers.

¶ 8 II. Plaintiff's Injury and Termination

¶ 9 On November 17, 2009, plaintiff sustained an on-the-job injury when a student attacked him. The student elbowed plaintiff in the eye, which caused his neck to "snap back." Plaintiff returned to work on November 20, but he performed only clerical and administrative functions. He remained in this clerical and administrative role for the remainder of the 2009-10 school year and the entire 2010-11 school year.

¶ 10 Early in the 2011-12 school year, plaintiff took medical leave from the District pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 ( 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. (2012) ). He never returned to work. After plaintiff exhausted his allotment of paid and unpaid leave, the District terminated his employment.

¶ 11 Plaintiff filed this lawsuit after his termination. He sought a declaratory judgment as to whether the Disability Act and Benefits Act entitled him to disability benefits awarded to "law enforcement officers" who sustain injuries in the line of duty. See 5 ILCS 345/1(a) (West 2016); 820 ILCS 320/10 (West 2016). If so, the District would be responsible for funding these benefits. The parties disputed whether plaintiff ever worked as a law enforcement officer for the District—his eligibility for Disability Act and Benefits Act benefits depended on this determination.

¶ 12 The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment to resolve this dispute. After the hearing on July 28, 2017, the trial court entered judgment in the District's favor. The court found that the District's legal authority to hire law enforcement officers served as a condition precedent to plaintiff's eligibility for Disability Act and Benefits Act benefits. Because the District lacked authority to employ plaintiff as a law enforcement officer, the court concluded that plaintiff was ineligible for benefits under either statute. This appeal followed.

¶ 13 ANALYSIS

¶ 14 Plaintiff challenges the court's summary judgment order regarding his eligibility for Disability Act and Benefits Act benefits; we must construe each statute's language to decide this case. We review summary judgment orders and questions of statutory construction de novo . Standard Mutual Insurance Co. v. Rogers , 381 Ill. App. 3d 196, 198, 318 Ill.Dec. 877, 884 N.E.2d 845 (2008). Issues of statutory construction require courts to determine and effectuate the legislature's intent. See Michigan Avenue National Bank v. County of Cook , 191 Ill. 2d 493, 503-04, 247 Ill.Dec. 473, 732 N.E.2d 528 (2000). The statute's language best reflects the legislature's intent—if the language is clear and unambiguous, then we must apply the statute as it is written.

Nowak v. City of Country Club Hills , 2011 IL 111838, ¶ 11, 354 Ill.Dec. 825, 958 N.E.2d 1021. However, if the statute's language is subject to more than one reasonable interpretation, we may look beyond the language to ascertain its meaning. In re D.D. , 196 Ill. 2d 405, 419, 256 Ill.Dec. 870, 752 N.E.2d 1112 (2001).

¶ 15 Plaintiff argues that the District employed him as a law enforcement officer; he is entitled to benefits regardless of the District's legal authority to do so. Alternatively, plaintiff claims that the District possesses authority to hire law enforcement officers under the School Code, which authorizes school districts to employ truant officers. 105 ILCS 5/26-5 (West 2016). According to plaintiff, truant officers qualify as law enforcement officers who are eligible for Disability Act and Benefits Act benefits. Plaintiff also raises an estoppel argument in which he contends that the District should not escape liability for his disability benefits merely because it exceeded its legal authority by hiring and training police officers to perform law enforcement functions—this result punishes plaintiff for the District's mistake. We address each argument separately below.

¶ 16 I. Employer Authority Requirement

¶ 17 The Disability Act defines an " ‘eligible employee,’ " in relevant part, as "any full-time law enforcement officer * * * who is employed by the State of Illinois, any unit of local government (including any home rule unit), any State supported college or university, or any other public entity granted the power to employ persons for such purposes by law ." (Emphasis added.) 5 ILCS 345/1(a) (West 2016). Under the statute, employers must provide employees with up to one year of full-salary paid leave if they suffer disabling injuries "in the line of duty." Id. § 1(b).

¶ 18 Plaintiff argues that he qualifies for Disability Act benefits regardless of the District's authority to employ law enforcement officers. The District sent him to police training where he became a certified officer of the "Peoria Public School Police Department." Plaintiff also claims that the District required him to perform the duties of a law enforcement officer during his employment.

¶ 19 The Disability Act's plain language establishes a condition precedent to obtaining benefits; the final clause in section 1(a) requires that the employer must be "granted the power to employ persons for such purposes by law." Id. § 1(a). Because plaintiff sustained the relevant injury while working for the District, the District's authority to hire law enforcement officers determines his eligibility for Disability Act benefits. Plaintiff's training, certification, and job duties are irrelevant to this unambiguous condition.

¶ 20 Similar to the Disability Act, the Benefits Act requires employers "who employ[ ] a full-time law enforcement, correctional or correctional probation officer, or firefighter, who * * * suffers a catastrophic injury or is killed in the line of duty" to pay health insurance premiums for the injured employee and his or her family. 820 ILCS 320/10(a) (West 2016). To be eligible for Benefits Act benefits, "the injury or death must have occurred as the result of the officer's response to fresh pursuit, the officer or firefighter's response to what is reasonably believed to be an emergency, an unlawful act perpetrated by another, or during the investigation of a criminal act." Id. § 10(b).

¶ 21 Plaintiff contends that his Benefits Act claim is a "lesser-included count of his [Disability Act] claim" because the Benefits Act lacks an explicit condition that the employer must be authorized by law to employ law enforcement officers for an employee to obtain benefits. We disagree.

¶ 22 The legislature intended the Benefits Act to continue employer-sponsored health insurance coverage for "officers and the families of officers who,...

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