Cigarette-Smoking Firefighter’s Pension Decision Reviewed Under Manifest Weight Of The Evidence Standard

Firefighter Edward Lindemulder suffered from permanent, irreversible chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The City of Naperville, Illinois put Lindemulder on medical leave because his COPD prevented him from performing the essential functions of his job.

Lindemulder applied for line-of-duty or occupational disease disability benefits. He claimed his COPD was caused or exacerbated by his exposure to diesel fumes at the fire station or to fire smoke.

The board denied Lindemulder’s request, but did award a non-duty pension. The board ruled “that any alleged on-duty incidents or exposures did not cause or contribute to plaintiff’s [Lindemulder’s] disability, which instead was caused by cigarette smoking.” Lindemulder requested review of the board’s decision. But the trial court agreed with the board, so Lindemulder appealed.

Lindemulder and the board quarreled over the correct standard of review in the appellate court. Lindemulder argued for a “clearly erroneous” standard; the board argued its decision should stand unless it was against the manifest weight of the evidence. The Second District Illinois Appellate Court agreed with the board because the appeal required review of questions of fact. Here’s how the appellate court explained it:

The applicable standard of review depends upon whether the issue is one of fact, one of law, or a mixed question of law and fact … We will reverse a ruling on a question of fact if it is against the manifest weight of the evidence … We review questions of law de novo and mixed questions of law and fact under the “clearly erroneous” standard … The examination of the legal effect of a given set of facts is what requires review under the “clearly erroneous” standard … Here, in finding that plaintiff’s disability was the result of cigarette smoking and that no on-duty incidents or exposures caused or contributed to his disability, the Board ruled on questions of fact. Accordingly, our review is whether the Board’s decision was against the manifest weight of the evidence.

In the end, the appellate court affirmed the decision of the board. Read the whole case, Lindemulder v. Board of Trustees of the Naperville Firefighters’ Pension Fund, No. 2-10-0063 (3/8/11).