JOPLIN, Mo. —
Joplin’s firefighters have won a court ruling that they are entitled to half-pay without a reduction from the city pension fund if they are disabled or killed in the line of duty.
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by a disabled fireman, Tom Robertson, over the city’s practice of reducing disability pay under a formula based on the amount of years that public safety workers are short of retirement. Three other members of the Fire Department, Adam Grimes, Larin Trenary and Daniel Jobe, joined the lawsuit on behalf of active firefighters along with the International Association of Fire Fighters.
Members of the Fraternal Order of Police did not join the lawsuit. They issued a statement siding with the city in the dispute. The FOP secretary-treasurer, William Davis, could not be reached for comment Monday.
Firefighters and police officers who were employed before 2009 are eligible for retirement at 20 years. The city had been reducing disability pay by one-twentieth for each year less than 20 years of service a worker served.
Robertson, himself a former member of the pension board that oversees the fund, suffered a disabling lung condition from smoke inhalation. The pension board granted his disability benefits, which the city began paying Feb. 1, 2011, but his monthly payment was reduced by nearly $500 from what it would have been at half-pay.
Jasper County Circuit Judge David Mouton held a hearing on the lawsuit in July in which the two sides said there was no disagreement on the facts of the case; there was a dispute over the meaning of the language in the pension rules. The city contended that one section of the plan’s rules required payments to be offset.
But the judge ruled that there was no ambiguous language in the plan. He said the section related to disability is clear that benefits should be half of a worker’s regular pay. He said another section of the pension rules that the city argued had to be applied or created an ambiguity applies only to workers who meet retirement age but have not served a full 20 years. That section allows their normal retirement benefit to be offset by the number of years shy of 20 they served.
The judge ordered that Robertson’s monthly payment be raised to $1,931.74, up from $1,448.80. The judge also awarded Robertson $10,978.43 in back pay and interest.
“First and foremost, I would like to express my appreciation for the diligence of our attorney, Dan Tobben of St. Louis, and the Honorable David Mouton,” Robertson said. “Regarding the final ruling, it is a relief to know that the men and women of the Joplin Fire Department and their families will continue to receive these much needed benefits in the event they are disabled or lose their lives in a tragic event in the line of duty while protecting the citizens of Joplin.”
The judge wrote in his ruling that under the method the city had been using to offset the benefits, an injured worker could be left with little income. Firefighters and police are not covered by Social Security.
City Attorney Brian Head said city officials are examining the ruling and may discuss with the pension board at a meeting Thursday whether there is to be an appeal.
Mayor Pro Tem Bill Scearce said he did not wish to comment because it is a matter of litigation that is not final until a decision is made on whether to appeal, and because it involves the pension board, not the City Council.
Leslie Jones, the city’s finance director, said she has not had time to review the ruling and try to determine what impact it could have on the pension plan.
THE PENSION FUND’S BALANCE is about $27 million, up from as low as $18.5 million in 2005, but the funding ratio, which is influenced by investment swings, is low at 53 percent.