JOPLIN, Mo. —
A Jasper County judge said this week that he will study arguments before ruling on a dispute involving the way disability benefits are computed for the Joplin Police and Firemen’s Pension Fund.
Attorneys on the two sides agreed that there are no facts in dispute. Instead, interpretation of the rules of the plan and its supporting documents has created the disagreement.
Disabled firefighter Tom Robertson filed a lawsuit last June after he had asked the pension board to overrule the city’s calculation on disability pay and his attorney had met with the board asking for reconsideration.
The attorney representing Robertson, Dan Tobben of the Danna McKitrick firm in St. Louis, contends that Robertson should be entitled to half the average pay he earned when he worked. He was accepted for disability in January 2011 because of a lung condition caused by exposure to fire smoke. Robertson had worked for the city 15 years and 11 months. The pension plan for Robertson allows retirement at 20 years. His benefit was reduced by the number of years he was short for retirement and was figured at 37.5 percent of his average pay rather than 50 percent.
Robertson expected about $1,900 a month, but after the reduction, he is scheduled to receive $1,400, he said at a pension board meeting last April. Robertson is a former member of the pension board and served at a time when board members were trying to get the city to increase the funding level of the plan.
City officials contend that the benefit calculation is governed by provisions in the plan that were voted on by the membership in 1993 and 1999.
One of the attorneys representing the city, Tyler Strodtman, told Judge David Mouton at Monday’s hearing in Jasper County Circuit Court that the “terms of the plan unambiguously state that benefits are reduced for every year less than 20 years of service.”
A subsection of the plan’s rules allows pay to be adjusted for those who work more than 20 years and those who work less, Strodtman said.
The city has contended that the plan’s membership approved changes in 1993 that, among other things, implemented reduced benefits for retirement or disability before 20 years.
Tobben told the court that before the 1993 election, employees were allowed to retire at age 60 with 20 years of service. In 1993, an election was held in which plan members approved allowing people who went to work over age 45 to receive a prorated retirement benefit at age 60. That election did not change the ratio of duty disability or death pay, Tobben contends. He said the change was made to apply to a police chief who went to work for the city at age 45.
Tobben said plan actuaries have always calculated financial documents for the plan based on the formula that disability pay is 50 percent of the average pay while the person was employed.
Karl Blanchard, another attorney representing the city, contended that the actuarial reports are not making official representations of the plan’s provisions. They are stating examples, he said.
“What the firefighters did in 1993 was to make sure the plan stayed solvent” by changing benefit calculation rules, Blanchard said. “That’s what the plan says and the way it has been applied in the past.”
The judge said he would look at the competing motions for summary judgment in the case and issue a ruling later.
Members of the firefighters union, Local 2618, International Association of Fire Fighters, joined the lawsuit in December.
The firefighters contend that they did not approve language to reduce disability pay benefits based on tenure.
Kevin Theilen, a Joplin firefighter who is a representative of the local IAFF leadership, declined to comment on Monday’s hearing, saying Tobben is authorized to speak for the firefighters.
Members of the Fraternal Order of Police have issued a letter of support for the position of the city and the pension board.
POLICE AND FIREFIGHTERS are not eligible to participate in Social Security.