Firefighter who says harassment led to disability to get another pension hearing

The Sugar Grove Firefighters pension board will reconsider a firefighter's application for a disability pension based on her claim on-the-job harassment made her so anxious and depressed she could no longer do the job.

The state's 2nd District Appellate Court ruled Nov. 17 three of the five board members who heard Lt. Sara Naden's petition were biased against her because they were some of the co-workers and subordinates accused of the harassment. One of them was her boss, Battalion Chief Brendan Moran, The other two were then-Lt. Michael Warner (now a battalion chief) and firefighter Jason Nichols.

Naden was a paid-on-call firefighter and paramedic since 1998. She was one of the first full-timers hired in 2006.

In March 2014, Naden was diagnosed with having panic attacks. Later that month, she asked for an unpaid 12-week medical leave to deal with the issue, and told the chief harassment, including sexual harassment, was the cause. At the chief's request, she filed the formal complaint. According to the court ruling, the complaint was 16 pages and listed dozens of incidents. The opinion noted that in 2010, Moran was disciplined for calling Naden either "retarded" or "handicapped" in front of employees.

In a June 28 oral argument before the appellate court, her attorney, Thomas Maguire, said the firefighters under Naden's command complained she did not have the formal training that she did. He also said Naden told the pension board that while she was physically capable of fighting fires, she didn't trust her co-workers and they didn't trust her. The court opinion says Naden said she would have "crying spells" and feel sick to her stomach while at work.

Ericka Thomas, an attorney for the district, argued "trust" was not part of the job description for lieutenants or firefighters. She also argued Naden could have asked for the three men to recuse themselves, but she did not. Her attorney said he didn't ask for a recusal because there were no substitutes available and because he hoped that the men would act in a fair way.

The board refused to grant her the pension, and a Kane County Circuit Court judge refused to overrule the decision.

When the pension board reconsiders the application, Moran, Warner and Nichols cannot be involved, the court said.

The court also said the board improperly considered testimony from psychologists and psychiatrists as to whether Naden had the ability to be a firefighter or lieutenant with any fire department, not just the Sugar Grove district. Illinois' pension law specifies it should only consider whether the alleged disability would affect her at "the" department, the justices ruled.

Fire district officials have not returned a call for comment.

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