City Of Joliet Penalized For Suspending Disability Pay Of Police Officer Injured In Line Of Duty ($108,000)

The City of Joliet was ordered to pay penalties for bad faith conduct in suspending the disability pay of police officer David Hir, who was injured in the line of duty. In a decision dated September 17, 2004, the Illinois Industrial Commission ordered the City of Joliet to pay Officer Hir over two years of weekly workers’ compensation benefits totaling nearly $86,000.00, plus over $20,000.00 in statutory penalties and nearly $7,400.00 in attorneys’ fees.

The Case

Earlier, the City had suspended Officer Hir’s benefits when the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners ruled that he had violated a local residency ordinance by moving outside the city limits. But the Industrial Commission – the court that hears workers’ compensation cases – ruled that “violation of [the City’s] residency requirement did not provide … a permissible basis for suspending the payment of benefits” to Officer Hir.

In-Depth Look

Officer Hir was originally injured while responding to a domestic disturbance when a 275-pound suspect tackled him, wrestled him to the floor and kicked him repeatedly in the back. He sustained severe injuries to his low back, causing chronic, intractable pain. Two board-certified neurosurgeons agreed that Officer Hir is permanently unable to return to his pre-injury work as a law enforcement officer, and that his only hope for recovery would involve a surgical low back fusion. The City of Joliet ordered an examination by an orthopedic surgeon of its choice, and the City doctor agreed with Officer Hir’s physicians regarding both his inability to return to work and the need for low back surgery.

Officer Hir’s treating neurosurgeon placed him on permanent work restrictions involving no more than six hours of light duty work per day, with no lifting in excess of fifteen pounds. Although he might have qualified for a desk job, the City of Joliet made no attempt to employ him within his restrictions. Instead, the City suspended payment of Officer Hir’s weekly workers’ compensation benefits and initiated termination proceedings before the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners, claiming that he violated the City’s residency ordinance by moving outside the city limits.

A hearing was held before an arbitrator at the Illinois Industrial Commission in which Officer Hir sought reinstatement of his workers’ compensation benefits. Testimony was taken from Officer Hir, Police Chief David Gerdes, and Michael Supan, the City’s Human Resources Director. Following the hearing, the arbitrator ordered the City to pay $706.67 per week in workers’ compensation benefits retroactive to the date of the injury. In addition, the arbitrator ordered the City to pay penalties to Officer Hir, and $7,391.66 towards Officer Hir’s attorneys’ fees, as a sanction for the City’s conduct, which the arbitrator found to be “unreasonable and vexatious.”

The City appealed the arbitrator’s award to a three-judge panel at the Industrial Commission. On appeal, the Commission awarded more than $18,000.00 in additional penalties beyond those awarded by the arbitrator. The Commission found that the City acted in bad faith in relying upon its residency ordinance as a basis to suspend payment of compensation. According to the Commission, “violation of [the City’s] residency requirement did not provide … a permissible basis for suspending the payment of benefits.” Additionally, the Commission ordered the City to provide and pay for a plan of vocational rehabilitation for Officer Hir, including the services of a qualified vocational rehabilitation counselor.

Attorney Marc A. Perper of the Law Offices of Horwitz, Horwitz & Associates, Ltd. represented Officer Hir before the Industrial Commission.

“Virtually every doctor who treated or examined Officer Hir agreed that his injuries prevent him from returning to his full, pre-injury duties as a law enforcement officer,” said Perper. “City officials could easily have offered to employ him within the medical restrictions imposed by his doctors. Instead, they used the residency ordinance as an excuse to cut off his workers’ compensation benefits,” added Perper.

“Now, I have no idea if Dave Hir actually violated the residency ordinance or not,” said Perper. “But even if he committed some technical residency violation after his injury, it makes no difference as far as his eligibility for workers’ compensation benefits is concerned,” Perper explained. “If a police officer moves outside the city limits, the City may well have a right to fire him for violating a residency requirement. But Illinois workers’ compensation law is clear: if a police officer becomes disabled due to an injury in the line of duty, he still has a right to receive workers’ compensation benefits, no matter where he decides to live afterward.”