The Fifth District Appellate Court has reversed a St. Clair County ruling that denied a police officer’s widow survivor pension benefits.
In an unpublished order filed Friday, the appeals panel determined that the Board of Trustees of the Police Pension Fund of the City of East St. Louis and Circuit Judge Stephen McGlynn erred when they denied benefits to Lorraine Fields.
Justice James Wexstten delivered the court’s Rule 23 order. Justices Thomas Welch and Richard Goldenhersh concurred.
The justices focused much of their analysis on how Fields’ remarriage to Lee Roy Fields affected the couple's divorce judgment.
The Fieldses first married in October 1979, a few days before Lee Roy retired from his job as an East St. Louis police officer and started drawing retirement pension benefits.
They divorced in 1987. As part of their judgment for dissolution of marriage, the circuit court referenced the parties’ marital settlement agreement, in which Lorraine waived all rights to Lee Roy’s pension and employment benefits.
In 1990, they remarried. Lee Roy died in April 2002 and the following the month, Lorraine began to collect pension benefits as his surviving spouse. She received $1,723.97 each month from the fund until August 2010.
That month, the pension board’s attorney explained in a letter to Fields that the board decided to suspend her benefits immediately “[d]ue to the erroneous payments made by the pension fund.”
The letter also noted that a hearing over her benefits would be conducted in September 2010 and that she could appear before the board at that time, if she wanted to.
Fields did not attend the hearing, but filed a complaint in the St. Clair County Circuit Court in November 2010 for administrative review.
In its written order terminating Fields’ benefits, the board relied on the couple’s marital settlement agreement in which Lorraine had waived all rights to Lee Roy’s pension.
Not only did the board determine that Fields was not entitled to benefits, but it directed its attorney to recover the money previously paid to her.
The fund, according to the appellate court order, had sent monthly payments to Fields for about eight years that totaled $170,673.03.
Following her request for administrative review and filing of an affidavit, McGlynn reversed the board’s decisions and ordered the restoration of the pension benefits.
Fields died in November 2011 and Joseph Yates, as executor of her estate, was substituted as the plaintiff in January 2012.
In July 2012, McGlynn granted the board’s motion to reconsider and affirmed the board’s decision to terminate pension benefits. As executor of Fields’ estate, Yates appealed.
He argued that Fields’ waiver of benefits was unenforceable upon her remarriage to Lee Roy, she was denied her due process rights and that the board can’t recover pension benefits it previously paid Fields under the voluntary payment doctrine.
The appeals panel agreed with Yates’ argument over the enforceability of the waiver of benefits. Reversing on that basis and remanding for further proceedings, the panel declined to address Yates’ other arguments.
In its analysis, the panel first looked to the Pension Code. Section 3-112(a) of the code provides pension benefits to a surviving spouse of a police officer while Section 3-120(a) provides no benefits if the officer marries after retirement.
“Lorraine was a surviving spouse’ upon Lee Roy's death,” Wexstten wrote for the panel. “Yet, Lorraine, as a surviving spouse who married Lee Roy subsequent to his retirement, did not acquire surviving pension benefits on the basis of their remarriage alone.”
Because Fields married Lee Roy the first time before he retired, Wexstten explained that all pension benefits earned during the marriage constituted marital property subject to division upon divorce.
As for Fields’ waiver of benefits in the couple’s 1987 marital settlement agreement, Wexstten wrote that “Lorraine and Lee Roy's 1990 remarriage rendered the prior divorce decree unenforceable with respect to the division of marital property that had not been fully executed.”
He added, “Because Lorraine's prior waiver became unenforceable once she remarried Lee Roy and because she was a ‘surviving spouse’ when Lee Roy died, she was entitled to the survivor pension benefits.”
In addition to the board, the complaint named board president Mario Alexander, vice president Nicholas Mueller, assistant secretary Michael Baxton and trustee Dennis Butler as defendants.
According to the appellate court clerk’s office, Belleville attorney Alvin Paulson represented Yates and Granite City attorney Dennis Orsey represented the defendants.