Death Of Fireman’s Widow Does Not Moot Her Appeal Of Retroactive Annuity Benefits

Michael Hooker suffered a debilitating injury while working for the Chicago Fire Department. After he died two years later, his widow, Elaine, applied to the Retirement Board of the Firemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund for widow’s benefits. She was awarded a minimum annuity, but she felt the Board did not include all of the money she was entitled to when calculating the amount of the annuity.

The original case went to the appellate court and then back to the trial court. Elaine filed an amended complaint that asked for recalculation of the annuity based upon an Illinois statute that became law after she filed the first complaint. She argued she was entitled to certain retroactive benefits.

The trial court gave summary judgment to the Board on its method of calculating the annuity. Elaine appealed. She died after the appeal was filed, but her estate carried on the appeal.

The First District Illinois Appellate Court assessed whether it had jurisdiction over the appeal in light of Elaine’s death – i.e., whether Elaine’s death abated the right to retroactive benefits. The Board argued against appellate jurisdiction because the question hadn’t been put to the trial court. But the court disagreed, and ruled that appellate jurisdiction existed because the court could “render effective relief.” This is how the appellate court explained it:

This court lacks jurisdiction to decide an appeal if the parties no longer face an actual controversy, as when events make it impossible for this court to render effective relief to the appealing party … This court has jurisdiction to consider whether Elaine’s death makes her appeal moot. However, neither party has suggested that her death moots the appeal, and we see no reason to believe that her death would make her appeal moot. We will not extend our review of our jurisdiction to review an issue that the trial court never addressed, where the issue does not appear to moot the appeal, and where neither party argues that the issue moots the appeal. If the Board fails to pay Elaine’s estate the benefits it withheld from Elaine while she lived, the statutory process for challenging the Board’s refusal to pay benefits it owes should suffice.

In the end, Elaine’s method of calculating the anniuity prevailed too. Read the whole opinion, Hooker v. Retirement Board of the Firemen’s Annuity Benefit Fund of Chicago, 2012 IL App (1st) 111625 (7/18/12).

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