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  • Writer's pictureSteve Judge

HOME RULE AUTHORITY DOES NOT SUPERSEDE LEGISLATIVE INTENT INTERPRETED BY THE ILLINOIS SUPREME COURT

This month’s column discusses the recent Illinois Supreme Court Decision of International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 50 v. The City of Peoria, 2022 IL 127040, affirming the trial court’s finding that a City of Peoria ordinance defining “catastrophic injury” exceeded its home rule authority.

Illinois Home Rule

 

The home rule is indented to assist municipalities in finding local solutions to local problems and issues. The home rule provides a broad authority to the 217 home rule communities in Illinois. Such home rule powers are construed liberally. Unless specifically prohibited from doing so by state law, a home rule municipality may exercise and perform any power and function under home rule jurisdiction. Article VII, Section 6(a) of the Illinois Constitution of 1970 states that “except as limited by this Section, a home rule unit may exercise any power and perform any function pertaining to its government and affairs including, but not limited to, the power to regulate for the protection of public health, safety, morals and welfare; to license; to tax; and to incur debt.” Illinois Municipal League (2021).

 

Interpretation of The Public Safety Employee Benefits Act

 

The Public Safety Employee Benefits Act (820 ILCS 320/1 et seq. (West 2018)) was passed by the Illinois General Assembly in 1997. The Act provides to fulfil an important State interest requiring that an employer:

 

“who employs 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 shall pay the entire premium of the employer’s health insurance plan for the injured employee, the injured employee’s spouse, and for each dependent child of the injured employee.” 820 ILCS 320/10 (a) (West 2018).

 

The act itself does not actually define “catastrophic injury”, and the Illinois Supreme Court has had to determine the legislative intent on a prior occasion in the case of Krohe v. The City of Bloomington, (273 Ill. Dec. 779 (Ill. 2003)

 

In Krohe, the Plaintiff, a firefighter employed by the City, was injured in the line of duty and awarded a line-of-duty disability pension. Plaintiff requested that the City continue to pay the health insurance premiums for his family, relying upon Section 10(a) of the Act. The City denied the request, finding Plaintiff’s injury did not qualify as a catastrophic injury, rendering Section 10(a) inapplicable. Plaintiff filed a complaint for declaratory relief ordering the City to continue paying his health insurance premiums which was granted by the circuit court and affirmed by the appellate court. The City argued that a “catastrophic injury” was only one which would “severely limit the earning power of the affected employee.” Plaintiff argued that the phrase is ambiguous and only the legislative history can ascertain the meaning of “catastrophic injury”.

In Krohe, Plaintiff argued that an injury rendering a person “permanently unable to engage in his or her chosen profession is, by definition, catastrophic”. Krohe v. The City of Bloomington, (273 Ill. Dec. 779 (Ill. 2003)). Given the at least six different noted definitions of “catastrophic injury” by “reasonably well-informed” persons, the Court agreed that the term was ambiguous. The Court looked to the case of People v. Jameson (642 N.E.2d 1207 (1994)), a case in which it was determined that a “A statute is ambiguous if it is capable of being understood by reasonably well-informed persons in two or more different ways” Id.

 

Legislative History and Debates Regarding the Public Safety Benefits Act

 

The Krohe Court looked to the legislative history wherein prior to the passing of the Bill, the Bill’s sponsor, Representative Art Tenhouse, stated:

 

"1347 is a simple Bill. It simply provides that full-time law enforcement officers and firefighters that are killed or disabled in the line of duty, we're going to continue the health benefits for the officer's children and spouse." 90th Ill. Gen. Assem., House Proceedings, April 14, 1997, at 180 (statements of Representative Tenhouse).

 

Another Bill sponsor, Senator Laura Kent Donahue, added:

 

"And what this does is that it provides that for full-time law enforcement officers and firefighters that are killed or disabled in the line of duty shall continue the health benefits for the officer or the firefighter, their spouses and their children." 90th Ill. Gen. Assem., Senate Proceedings, May 16, 1997, at 192 (statements of Senator Donahue).

 

Prior to a House vote to override the Governor’s veto of the Bill, Representative Tenhouse additionally stated:

 

"House Bill 1347 * [p]rovides that employers of full-time law enforcement and firefighters who are killed or disabled in the line of duty, shall continue health benefits for the officer or firefighter and the spouse and children thereof." 90th Ill. Gen. Assem., House Proceedings, October 28, 1997, at 16 (statements of Representative Tenhouse).

 

Based upon the legislative history, specifically the statements made by the Bill’s sponsors, the Krohe Court found that the both of Bill’s sponsors were focused on line-of-duty disabilities and made such unambiguously clear. The Illinois Supreme Court deferred to the legislature’s intent, finding “catastrophic injury” consistent with a line-of-duty disability under Scection 4-110 of the Code. Krohe v. The City of Bloomington, (273 Ill. Dec. 779 (Ill. 2003)). The Court’s interpretation of the legislative intent in Krohe has yet to be disturbed in any cases since that ruling.

 

City of Peoria’s Reliance on the Home Rule

 

In International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 50 v. The City of Peoria, the City of Peoria passed an ordinance amending the Peoria City Code and defining the term “catastrophic injury” and adding the term “gainful work”. The City represented that it had the right to do so under its home rule authority.

 

The Circuit Court granted summary judgment in favor of the Plaintiff, finding that Section 10 of the act is not ambiguous when considering the legislative history as the Krohe Court did and that the City did not have home rule authority to redefine these terms.

On appeal, the appellate court found that the City: “could define an administrative procedure for determining benefits under the Act, but it could not redefine the Act’s substantive terms to the extent that the City would provide benefits inconsistent with the Act.” 2021 IL App (3d) 190758, ¶ 11 (citing Pedersen v. Village of Hoffman Estates, 2014 IL App (1st) 123402).


City’s Home Rule Authority Preempted Due to Ordinance Inconsistencies with the Act


“Catastrophic injury” under the Act forbids a home rule municipality from providing “benefits inconsistent with the requirements of the Act”. 820 ILCS 320/10(a) (West 2018). As clarified in Krohe “catastrophic injury” is considered “synonymous with an injury resulting in a line-of-duty disability under section 4-110 of the Illinois Pension Code.” Krohe, 204 Ill. 2d at 400.

Among other definitions inconsistent with the Act, the ordinance defines “catastrophic injury” as preventing “an individual from performing any gainful work” Peoria City Code § 2-350(b).


The Illinois Supreme Court stated:

Under the ordinance, if a firefighter can volunteer part-time as a store greeter, he or she will not be considered to have suffered a catastrophic injury—even if that firefighter is not compensated. This is because, under the definition of “gainful work,” if that sort of volunteer work “commonly is compensated,” a firefighter is not permanently prevented from performing any gainful work and thus will not meet the showing for a “catastrophic injury.” Therefore, the ordinance’s definitions of “catastrophic injury” and “gainful work” operate to impermissibly disqualify those who would otherwise be “persons covered under [the] Act.” 820 ILCS 320/20 (West 2018).


Additionally, the City ordinance defines “injury” as:

“A traumatic physical wound (or a traumatized physical condition of the body) directly and proximately caused by external force (such as bullets, explosives, sharp instruments, blunt objects, or physical blows), chemicals, electricity, climatic conditions, infectious disease, radiation, virus, or bacteria… Peoria City Code § 2-350(b) (amended June 12, 2018).

Again, this is inconsistent with the Act which does not mention specific external injuries, focusing rather on the situational context. Since the City’s Code definitions were inconsistent with the Act, the City’s Code was not a valid exercise of home rule authority and was therefore preempted. The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed summary judgment in favor of Plaintiff.

When relying upon home rule authority, it is important for municipalities to ensures consistency with Illinois state law and the Illinois Supreme Court’s interpretation of such laws. Such inconsistencies with state law will cause home rule authority to be preempted.

 

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