Attorney Violates Firefighter’s Due Process Rights In Disability Hearing

Darren Williams, a firefighter with the Village of Morton Grove, Illinois, filed an application for a line-of-duty disability pension with the Board of Trustees of the Morton Grove Firefighters’ Pension Fund. Williams contended that he injured his right shoulder while responding to an ambulance call during which he transferred a patient from an ambulance cot to a hospital bed.

The local Pension Board consisted of three firefighters, the president of the Village’s Board of Trustees, the Village clerk, the Village attorney, the Village treasurer, and the Fire Chief. Before an initial hearing on Williams’ application, the Village filed a petition to intervene. The Board voted 5-3 to grant the Village’s petition and to permit the Village to participate fully in the hearing. Williams’ attorney immediately made an oral request that the mayor, Village attorney, Village clerk, and Village treasurer recuse themselves from participating in the hearing, arguing that once the Village was allowed to intervene, there was a per se conflict of interest for the Board members who were also Village officers. All Village officers declined to recuse themselves.

The Village attorney played an active role in the hearing on the merits of Williams’ claim. Four days before the hearing, the attorney provided a copy of the written record to an outside attorney representing the Village. During the hearing, the Village attorney (sitting as a Pension Board member) objected repeatedly to evidence offered by Williams, seeking to bar, among others, the Fire Chief from testifying on the merits of the claim. When the Board denied Williams’ claim, he challenged the decision through the Illinois court system.

The Illinois Court of Appeals found that the conduct of the Village attorney violated Williams’ due process rights. The Court began with noting that it was an “open question in Illinois whether a firefighter who has applied for a disability pension has a protected property interest in their disability pension before the administrative agency determines that the firefighter has satisfied the requirements for the receipt of such a pension.” The Court found that it did not have to reach that ultimate question, however, concluding that Williams “was afforded an administrative hearing to determine whether he qualified for such pension and, therefore, he has a right to due process, including the right to a fair and impartial hearing.”

As to the conduct of the Village attorney, the Court observed that Williams was required to prove that members of the Board “had to some extent prejudged the facts as well as the law of the case in advance of the hearing. There must be more than the mere possibility of bias or that the decision-maker is familiar with the facts of the case.

“In this case, the actions of the Village attorney infected the proceedings and resulted in an unfair hearing on Williams’ application. First, a few days before the hearing on Williams’ application, the attorney unilaterally provided a copy of the Board’s exhibits to an outside attorney hired by the Village in this matter. The attorney compounded her ex parte contact when she defended her conduct, and the Village’s petition to intervene, in a manner that was more akin to advocacy than statements of a disinterested decision-maker. The attorney’s advocacy continued throughout the hearing as she repeatedly objected to questions asked by Williams’ attorney. She also moved to bar Williams’ attorney from asking questions about admitting an exhibit regarding a discrimination charge that Williams filed with the EEOC. Regardless of the ultimate propriety of the attorney’s objections and/or motion regarding evidence offered by Williams, her actions demonstrate that she was advocating on behalf of the Village rather than acting as a disinterested decision-maker.”

The Court remanded the case to the pension board for a new hearing on Williams’ application for a line-of-duty disability pension.

Williams v. Board of Trustees of Morton Grove Firefighters’ Pension Fund, 2010 WL 395642 (Ill. App. 1 Dist. 2010).

This article appears in the April 2010 issue