No constitutional ruling in Joliet retirees case
By Bob Okon firstname.lastname@example.org May 10, 2013 11:46PM
Updated: June 13, 2013 6:29PM
The Illinois Appellate Court has sidestepped a constitutional ruling on whether Joliet can reduce health care benefits for city employees after they retire.
The case has the potential to test a bigger constitutional question in Illinois — whether pension benefits can be lessened for retirees in the state’s public pension funds.
The plaintiffs in the Joliet lawsuit, three retired firefighters and a retired police officer, seek to extend the state’s constitutional protection of pensions to retiree health care.
A Will County judge issued a final ruling in July 2011 that Joliet cannot take away health benefits from retirees, and the city appealed.
But an appellate court panel in Ottawa on May 2 declined to rule on the constitutionality issue in the Joliet case, instead sending it back to the Will County judge for reconsideration on other issues.
The constitutional issue could still be tested if Joliet or the plaintiffs appeal the ruling to the Illinois Supreme Court.
Even if that doesn’t happen, City Attorney Jeff Plyman said the appellate court’s opinion has the potential to have a big impact on municipalities across Illinois because the court “developed a new principle that really hasn’t been used in Illinois.”
The appellate court basically ordered that the case be reconsidered based on contractual issues. It also indicated that a future decision should comply with a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that health benefits for retirees should remain as is unless there is clear evidence that benefits can be subject to changes.
“(The opinion) would favor not only these (four) retirees but retirees as a class,” Plyman said, suggesting that retired municipal employees in other cities might be able to use the same ruling to try to regain health benefits.
Plaintiff Michael Marconi, a former firefighter, would not comment on the appellate court ruling. The other plaintiffs are John Lukancic, James Vancina and David Conner.
All four retired before the city negotiated health care concessions with its unions in 2010. Active employees and retirees, who paid no deductible previously, were required to pay a $250 annual deductible for individual coverage or a $500 family deductible.
Co-payments for prescription drugs were increased under the 2010 agreement, and active employees began to pay a premium of $100 a month for medical insurance. Retirees continued to not pay a premium.
The appellate court said it was obligated to examine non-constitutional grounds to decide the case, even though it meant raising issues that had not come up in Will County Circuit Court.
“Before deciding this case under the pension protection clause of the Illinois Constitution, the circuit court should have first determined whether it could be decided on non-constitutional grounds,” the appellate court’s decision states.
Citing the Wisconsin decision, the appellate court said retiree health care benefits should continue unless a union contract or other evidence shows that the city and union did not intend for them to remain the same in retirement.
The court rejected Joliet’s argument that Illinois public employees should be governed by a federal court ruling that leaves retiree benefits in the private sector unprotected once a union contract expires.
The Joliet union contracts did not specify that retiree benefits could be subject to change. But Plyman said the city had reduced health benefits for retirees in the past.