By Debby Woodin
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Members of the Joplin Police and Firemen’s Pension Board have asked for an update on the status of a lawsuit that has been filed against the board and the city regarding how disability benefits are calculated.
Bob Davidson, a retired firefighter and former trustee on the board, requested Thursday that the board review some of the briefs being filed in the case because of an allegation raised in them that benefits for a widow, Tracy Nielson, and her two children were miscalculated. Her husband, police Officer Tim Nielson, 26, died in 2004 after suffering injuries in an explosion at a call he was answering for police assistance.
According to documents in the lawsuit, she and her children would be entitled to about $1,300 more a month if the lawsuit plaintiffs prevail in their contention that the city’s reduction of death and disability pay was not authorized by pension participants.
After some discussion, board members agreed that they would like an update from the board’s attorney, Karl Blanchard, regarding any potential liabilities the fund could face.
Nielson’s widow, now Tracy Nielson Gribben, of Joplin, said she is not involved in the lawsuit and does not wish to be.
“I am very grateful for the things the city of Joplin has done for me” and her two daughters, she told the Globe on Thursday. She said she also appreciates the Police Department’s assistance to her and her family, as well as the effort by the department and the city to honor Nielson’s memory.
“I have no desire to be in this case,” she said. “I have not spoken to Tom Robertson. I don’t have anything to do with this situation whatsoever.”
The lawsuit was filed by Robertson, a disabled firefighter. He challenges the calculation used to determine his disability pay, saying he thought he was entitled to receive half of what he earned when he was able to work. He contends that the city changed the benefit calculation in 1993 without a vote of the membership on the change.
Under the plan, members are eligible to take retirement after 20 years of service. If they are disabled and have not reached 20 years of service, the years of service go into the calculation that determines the benefit amount. Robertson thought he would receive half-pay of $1,900 a month, but his benefit is $1,400 based on his 15 years of employment.
Firefighters contend that the reduction is not adequate compensation for public safety workers who risk injury or death in their jobs.
The pension board and the city contend that members before 1993 did receive half-pay if they were hurt on the job and unable to work, but that the years-of-service requirement was longer. When retirement eligibility was shortened in 1993, there was a corresponding reduction in disability calculations to preserve the plan’s funding status, the city argues.
Members of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 2618, joined the lawsuit, while members of the Southwest Missouri Regional Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge No. 27, have voted to support the position of the city of Joplin.
Davidson told the pension board Thursday that he would like the board members to familiarize themselves with the details of the arguments. “The case may wind up in court in the next month or two,” he said. “If (Robertson) wins, her (Gribben’s) benefit will have to be revisited.”
City Attorney Brian Head said in response that it might be time for a status update anyway. He said the board could invite Blanchard for a consultation in a closed meeting.
“What’s going on is they are laying out the facts and arguing different theories of law,” regarding the calculations, Head told the board.
Board member Jimmy Furgerson, a firefighter, asked if the board should be reviewing the filings in the case routinely. Head said he usually reads some of the briefs but does not supervise each one.
Mayor Melodee Colbert-Kean recommended that the board check on the case to make sure there was not an error.
Leslie Jones, the city’s finance director, said there is no error and that Gribben has not been shorted any money.
Furgerson said, “That’s for the lawsuit to determine.”
Nielson and another Joplin officer, Greg Batson, were sent on a call Aug. 10, 2004, to check the well-being of a resident who was reported as suicidal. While they were there, a gas stove exploded, injuring the officers and killing the resident, David Riley. Nielson died of his injuries Sept. 13, 2004.
POLICE OFFICER LARRY SWINEHART recently was re-elected as a board trustee.