Frustration grows over Illinois’ pension code that some experts say promotes disability pension fraud
Legal experts are frustrated with the “phony and fraudulent” disability pensions running rampant in Illinois and say Vaughn vs. City of Carbondale is a perfect example of how flawed the pension system really is.
In Vaughn vs. City of Carbondale, the Illinois Supreme Court opined on March 24 that the Illinois Fifth District Appellate Court erred when it ruled that a former Carbondale police officer, Jeffery Vaughn, was entitled to receive full premium health insurance from the City of Carbondale as a result of an incident that occurred on his first day on the job as a police officer.
The Illinois Supreme Court ruling is the final chapter after over a decade-long saga of legal proceedings stemming from a 2005 incident when Vaughn was injured. Although the High Court reversed the appellate court decision, a separate appellate court ruling years ago determined Vaughn would continue to receive a full disability pension for life after one day of service.
“The first day on the job you bump your head getting into the car like this guy did, and you are adjudicated to get line of duty disability pension with one day of service,” Eugene Keefe, of Keefe, Campbell, Biery & Associates LLC, told Southwest Illinois News. “You now can (receive benefits) for the rest of your life, that is what this guy is doing. Does that seem phony to you?”
In 2007, the Carbondale Police Pension Board initially denied Vaughn’s request. But the Circuit Court of Jackson County ruled against the Carbondale Police Pension Board and determined that Vaughn was entitled to a full disability pension for life a few years after the incident. Many were outraged then and still are today, particularly because Vaughn runs his own business, Tres Hombres Mexican Restaurant and Bar.
Keefe said if a police officer is injured on the job and loses a limb or is otherwise severely injured and cannot work as a result, the officer should be entitled to benefits.
“What I have a problem with is bumping your head as being the basis to never having to work again and now you can run a bar and you are living off of taxpayers,” Keefe said.
In 2005, Vaughn was stopped by a motorist asking for directions. Vaughn left the door to his patrol car open and went to speak to the motorist. Vaughn received a dispatch call on his radio, returned to this vehicle and reached in through the driver’s side door to respond to the call, bumping his head on the car door of his patrol car. The accident caused him to “see stars” and experience a sharp pain in his arm, court documents state.
Vaughn sought medical treatment after his shift and was relieved of his duties as a result.
Almost two years later, Vaughn applied for a line of duty disability pension pursuant to the Illinois Pension Code. His request was initially denied by the Carbondale Police Pension Board after the board determined Vaughn’s injury was not caused by his employment with the Police Department. However, the Circuit Court of Jackson County reversed the board’s decision and found Vaughn was eligible for full disability pension pursuant to the Illinois Pension Code (40 ILCS 5/3-114.1). The decision was affirmed on appeal.
“I (consider this to be) the worst fake pension, it is not a pension and it is certainly not a line of duty in a sense of what you and I would typically consider to be disabled and to me it is just fraudulent and it is whatever you want to call it,” Keefe said.
While receiving disability pension, Vaughn filed a request for the City of Carbondale to provide him with health insurance coverage. The request was granted in 2012, but after a physical examination found Vaughn was not disabled, the City of Carbondale terminated his benefits.
Vaughn filed a complaint for injunctive relief that was denied by the Circuit Court but granted by an appellate court. The request worked its way up to the state’s Supreme Court, which ultimately reversed the appellate court judgment and affirmed the circuit court’s order denying plaintiff’s complaint for injunctive relief.
“Just a FYI on the first case of Vaughn vs City of Carbondale, he now owns a bar called Tres Hombres and sits there day in and day out at the bar,” a source who asked to remain anonymous told Illinois Southwest News. “Just another FYI, he also went snowmobiling for a week in Wisconsin this winter. If the city attorney really wanted to do his job he would go about a quarter of a mile down the road to the bar and do a video. This system really is a joke.”
Illinois’ pension code requires a person to be “catastrophically injured” to be eligible. But when the legislature passed the pension code, the term “catastrophically injured” was not defined, Keefe said.
“I would think you and I would agree a police officer who lost a leg and lost an arm in an explosion and had brain damage is catastrophically injured — that is what I feel would be done," Keefe said. "Not a guy who is bumping his head and may or may not have a compression fracture in his neck and might or might not have a headache occasionally.”
Keefe’s law firm addressed the Supreme Court ruling and the flawed pension system in a recent blog post and said Vaughn’s eligibility to receive disability pension doesn’t pass the “smell test.”
“In our opinion, diagnosing a vertebral compression fracture is very subjective — and relating any complaints and sequalae [consequently] to it is even more scientifically and medically dicey. We assure our readers it is our view this sort of condition would not provide for lifetime taxpayer-paid benefits to folks in other states, outside this one,” the blog stated.
The attorneys asserted that Vaughn would have had to lower his head and “literally run into the car to create the force needed to measurably crush this middle-of-the-spine vertebra.” Further proving the attorney’s point, one physician cleared Vaughn to return to work, which is the reason his benefits were terminated at one point.
“None of this would be a concern, if the enabling legislation made any sort of sense. In our state, all a police officer or firefighter has to do to get lifetime line-of-duty disability benefits is demonstrate they can’t be an 'active' police officer or firefighter any more — in this kooky state, that is considered by our courts to be 'catastrophically injured,' ” the blog stated.
What many find extremely troubling is the fact that Vaughn is running a seemingly successful restaurant and bar while collecting disability pension. But, unlike other states, the provisions in the state’s pension legislation allow Vaughn, and other disability pension recipients, to run a business.
“It is completely ‘legal’ if they first establish they aren’t able to do essential job functions of their former job. In other states outside Illinois, if a disabled police officer or firefighter works a regular job or runs a business, they consider them frauds and put them in prison,” the blog stated. “In Illinois, that sort of behavior is fully but sadly sanctioned. It appears the Illinois Fifth District Appellate Court, one of the most liberal and pro-plaintiff courts in the entire U.S., if not the world, provided this former officer a lifetime, line-of-duty disability pension for his sore thorax and that ruling is now final.”