MT. VERNON — The Fifth District Appellate Court has ruled that a career firefighter’s back condition was not solely the result of his firefighting duties, so he is not entitled to a line-of-duty disability pension.
According to a Rule 23 decision filed Oct. 19, Granite City Fire Pension board of trustees had appealed a Madison County Circuit Court ruling in a case filed by Craig Sykes.
The panel of justices reversed their current colleague, former circuit judge John Barberis, who was elected last year to the Fifth District Appellate Court.
Sykes was employed as a firefighter for the Granite City Fire Department for 19 years. After he filed for a duty-related disability, the Granite City Fire Pension board ruled that he was not entitled to a duty-related pension, which would have been 65 percent of his salary. Instead, it ruled that although he couldn’t perform his firefighting duties, he was only entitled to 50 percent of his salary. Sykes appealed that ruling.
“Sykes filed a complaint for administrative review in the circuit court, which reversed the decision of the Board, holding that the Board's decision was against the manifest weight of the evidence," the ruling says.
In reaching its determination, the appellate court reviewed records of injuries Sykes sustained. In 2004 and 2006, he suffered duty-related back injuries, but in 2007, he injured himself getting out of bed at the fire station, according to the ruling. He had lumbar fusion surgery in July 2007. In 2012, he was diagnosed with bulging discs at the thoracic spine, and in 2014, an MRI revealed degenerative disc disease and lumbar radiculopathy.
On Feb. 6, 2015, Sykes returned to work but was again injured.
“Sykes was ascending up a flight of stairs to the second floor when he reached around to his left, while bent over, to grab a water-filled fire hose," the order states. "At that time, he felt a sudden pain in his lumbar back with radicular pain in his legs. Sykes was unable to continue work.”
In May 2015, Sykes filed for a line-of-duty disability pension.
On July 7, 2015, an independent medical examination concluded that Sykes' medical records showed he was not fully functional to return to work in February 2015 and that his Feb. 6 injury was a minor aggravation of injuries that accumulated over a period of years. A second independent medical exam in July 2015 concluded that his work as a firefighter may have contributed to the back injuries. A third independent medical exam that month “concluded that Sykes was permanently disabled due to a nonoccupational degenerative disc disease,” according to the 5th District ruling.
On Sept. 11, 2015, the board voted to award Sykes a 50 percent pension because his back issues were degenerative and not a result of his firefighting duties.
On April 21, 2016, the Circuit Court found Sykes’ injuries were as a result of duty, and he should be awarded his full pension. The pension board appealed.
The appellate court reversed, concluding, “A close review of the record compels us to conclude that Sykes has not met his burden of proof. Since there is some competent evidence in the record to support the Board's findings, we cannot say that those findings are erroneous and that the opposite conclusion is clearly evident."
Judge Thomas Welch delivered the judgment of the court. Presiding Judge James Moore concurred in the judgment, and Judge Richard Goldenhersh dissented.