Bias And Disability Hearing Boards

Sara Naden is a lieutenant with the Sugar Grove, Illinois Fire Protection District. Naden testified that during her career, she was subjected to intense criticism, ridicule, and sexual harassment by her male coworkers – both her subordinates and her superiors. According to Naden, she had “crying spells” and “anxiety attacks” at work, and she “continually felt sick to her stomach.”

On March 10, 2014, Naden sought treatment from her primary care physician for panic attacks. Naden’s physician assessed her panic attacks and prescribed medication for anxiety and depression. Less than a month later, Naden sent an email to the fire chief, requesting a leave of absence from the District and citing her anxiety and her treatment by her coworkers. The District granted Naden 12 unpaid workweeks of leave under the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

However, in conjunction with her leave, the District asked Naden to submit a written complaint regarding her allegations of sexual harassment. Naden prepared a 16-page single-spaced report and submitted it to the District on April 8, 2014. Naden’s report described dozens of alleged incidents of workplace harassment since 2006.

Naden subsequently applied for workers’ compensation benefits, filed a claim of sex discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and sought either a line-of-duty or a non-duty disability pension. When her disability application was rejected by the District’s retirement board, Naden challenged the decision in the Illinois Court of Appeals.

Naden’s primary argument was that she did not receive a fair hearing before the retirement board. The Court agreed. The Court began with the proposition that “administrative hearings are quasi-judicial proceedings that must comport with due process. Due process requires that a judge possess neither actual nor apparent bias. It is a classical principle of jurisprudence that no man who has a personal interest in the subject matter of decision in a case may sit in judgment on that case.

“The record reflects that conflicts of interest were held by a majority of the trustees. Three of the five members of the Board – Chairman Moran and trustees Nichols and Warner – were also firefighters specifically named as antagonists in Naden’s 16-page written complaint to the District. In her complaint, Naden accused each of these three trustees of having engaged in repugnant behavior years before she left the Department and sought her pension. The District’s disciplinary investigation into Naden’s complaint remained pending and unresolved at the time of the hearing on Naden’s pension.

“In addition, in 2010, Moran, the Board’s chair and Naden’s superior officer, was disciplined for making a derogatory comment, calling Naden either ‘retarded’ or ‘handicapped’ in front of her shift-mates. We are not in a position to determine that the 2010 incident between Moran and Naden was based on sex discrimination; we do not know the totality of the circumstances. However, we also cannot rule out, as the Board apparently did, that the incident was not motivated by sex discrimination. But, more to the point, even if Moran’s comment was not sexual harassment, the entire episode demonstrated Moran’s animosity, hostility, and ill will toward Naden personally.

“Such antagonistic conduct is per se prejudicial to the administration of justice. No person should be tried before a biased adjudicator in any capacity; however, the danger of prejudice is heightened by the greater influence wielded by a board’s elected chairperson.”

The Court ordered the matter remanded to the Board with instructions to hold a hearing de novo on Naden’s application for disability benefits, excluding as adjudicators trustees Moran, Nichols, and Warner.

Naden v. Firefighters’ Pension Fund, 2017 IL App (2d) 160698 (Ill. App. 2017).