Improper To Discharge Firefighter For Conduct Related To Psychiatric Problems That Formed Basis For Disability

Jeffrey Lynch was a firefighter for the City of Waukegan, Illinois. Beginning in 2001, Lynch began acting erratically. He was absent without leave, failed to obtain advance permission from the Fire Chief to secure outside employment, and made several operational decisions that were questionable.

In July 2004, the Fire Chief brought seven disciplinary charges against Lynch. A month later, Lynch applied for a disability pension. The hearing on disciplinary charges began before the hearing on the pension application.

Prior to the conclusion of the hearing before the City’s Civil Service Commission, Lynch asked that he be placed on unpaid leave of absence so that the disability proceedings could be concluded. The Civil Service Commission rejected Lynch’s request, and ordered that he be discharged as a firefighter. The City’s Pension Board subsequently granted him a duty-related disability pension citing Lynch’s underlying psychiatric problem.

The Illinois Court of Appeals ruled that it was improper to discharge Lynch for conduct that had as its basis the psychiatric condition that resulted in Lynch’s disability. The Court began by noting that Illinois law prevented a civil service commission from discharging an employee “based on misconduct that is substantially related to the psychiatric problem that forms the basis for the employee’s pension.”

The City argued that the decisions of the Commission and the Pension Board did not have identical grounds. The City contended that the Commission based its decision not only on Lynch’s performance during work but also on his failure to report to work after his paid and unpaid time off expired and on his procurement of outside employment without first seeking the Fire Chief’s consent. The Court was unconvinced, noting that “these circumstances may, nonetheless, be attributable to Lynch’s cognitive disorder, which impairs his decision-making process. Lynch’s failure to seek the Chief’s consent prior to obtaining outside employment may have been the effect of a memory lapse of the kind that Lynch had suffered previously. And there is no question that Lynch’s absence from work was due to his impairment.”

The Court concluded by noting that Lynch had been a firefighter for over 20 years, and that his immediate supervisor testified that Lynch was a very effective firefighter before his recent decline. The Court also observed that there was no evidence of any other infractions in Lynch’s employment history prior to the conduct that gave rise to the disciplinary charges against him. In reversing Lynch’s discharge, the Court held that Lynch’s conduct, which was clearly based on his psychiatric disability, “cannot in itself justify Lynch’s discharge.”

Lynch v. City of Waukegan, 2006 WL 686581 (Ill.App. 2006).

This article appears in the May 2006 issue