A disabled former Lake County police officer who claimed his disability pension plan should provide the same cost-of-living increases that non-disabled retirees receive did not influence the 7and Circuit Court of Appeals.
Thomas Ostrowski served nearly eight years as a police officer with the Lake County Sheriff’s Department until 1996, when he suffered a serious spinal injury during a training exercise.
Ostrowski’s condition worsened over time and forced him to undergo double fusion surgery on his spine in 2003. The surgery was unsuccessful and the Lake County Sheriff’s Merit Board determined that Ostrowski was permanently disabled.
Now retired, Ostrowski receives a monthly disability pension from the department.
Former employees and surviving spouses receiving retirement benefits are eligible for an annual increase in their benefits based on the cost of living upon reaching age 55. However, people who receive disability benefits, including Ostrowski, are not eligible for the increase.
Ostrowski therefore sued Lake County, the Sheriff’s Department, the Lake County Treasurer, and the Lake County Sheriff’s Pension Plan Pension Committee, arguing that the county’s policy violated the Equal Protection Clause of 14and Amendment, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and state law.
Ostrowski previously sued Lake County and others over a separate case in 2016, alleging he was forced to quit his job as a 911 dispatcher because his employer denied him reasonable accommodations. This case was settled in 2017.
When Ostrowski filed this lawsuit, the defendants raised in defense a release included in the 2017 settlement agreement.
The district court found that the release applied and granted summary judgment to the defendants on that basis, finding that Ostrowski knew his pension did not include cost-of-living increases prior to signing the settlement agreement. 2017. It also found that Ostrowski waived any claims against the sheriff, treasurer, and pension committee because they were “affiliates” or “related entities.”
The defendants also received $221,577.25 in attorneys’ fees and $4,487.08 in costs.
But in a decision on Wednesday, the 7and Circuit determined that “the settlement agreement in its entirety has no effect on Ostrowski’s disability pension. The waiver appears in paragraph 2 of the agreement, and it’s one of those things that do not ‘change, modify, terminate or otherwise affect’ Ostrowski’s disability pension.
“This suffices to dispose of the threshold issue on which the district court relied,” Judge Diane Wood wrote, adding that the court would deal with Ostrowski’s alternative argument – based on “the preservation of” rights or claims arising after the execution “of the settlement agreement” — for completeness.
Resting on Bay Area Laundry and Dry Cleaning Pension Trust Fund v. Freebar Corp. from California, 522 US 192 (1997), the 7and Circuit determined that “each payment after (Ostrowski) signed the settlement agreement in February 2017 generated a separate claim that falls outside the scope of the release.”
Then passing to the bottom, the 7and The circuit refused to reconsider Morgan c. Joint administration. bd., 268 F.3d 456 (7th Cir. 2001), which held that a retirement plan did not violate the employment provisions of the ADA by extending a cost-of-living increase to retirees without disabilities but not to those taking early retirement due to a disability.
“This solves the Ostrowski case,” Wood wrote.
“Ostrowski’s complaint also invoked Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 USC § 794. But on appeal, Ostrowski’s brief barely addressed that theory,” Wood wrote. “So that argument is lost.”
Additionally, the 7and Circuit noted that Ostrowski’s disability pension is calculated as if he had spent 32 years working for the department, despite having worked on the force for less than eight years.
“There is nothing irrational about offering more generous benefits to former employees who have worked longer for the Sheriff’s Department or who have made more annual dues,” Wood wrote. “Similarly, Lake County might legitimately believe that it is appropriate to provide more generous benefits to surviving spouses of employees who died on the job than to disabled employees, in light of the sacrifice made by these families.
“…As long as a policy has a rational connection to a legitimate state interest, its improvement rests with the democratic branches of government, rather than the courts,” the judge continued. “Lake County easily meets this test.”
The appeal panel also declined to argue that Indiana Code § 36-8-10-15 requires a cost of living increase for all disability pensions.
Finally, he overturned the award of attorney’s fees and costs to the defendants, concluding that the costs provision of the 2017 settlement agreement “has no effect on Ostrowski’s lawsuit regarding his performance benefits.” retirement”.
“If the contract does not enforce, defendants must bear the cost of their own litigation”, the 7and Round completed.
The case is Thomas Ostrowski v. Lake County, et al., 21-1674 and 21-2580.