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5 years later, Hall County employees still fighting for pension benefits in lawsuit
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Hall County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Brad Rounds speaks about staying in the workforce due to not having the money needed to retire Jan. 13, 2017, during an interview at his Clermont home. Rounds and an expected group of 100 current and retired employees have filed an estimated $75 million lawsuit against the Hall County commission regarding an issue of frozen pension benefits. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Five years later, Hall County and its employees are still waging legal battle regarding the latter’s pension benefits in an estimated $75 million class-action lawsuit.

Brad Rounds summed up the feeling with the word “aggravation.”

"Can you imagine that this thing has (dragged) out for five years?” asked Rounds, one of the chief plaintiffs in the case. “We never would have expected that."

The plaintiffs originally served the lawsuit on the Hall County Board of Commissioners Jan. 12, 2017, arguing that roughly 100 current and retired Hall County employees in the expected class had their pension benefits unlawfully frozen.

The lawsuit was filed against the county, its board of commissioners and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

Rounds, who was hired in 1988, retired as a captain in the Hall County Sheriff’s Office in September 2019 after three decades.

The $75 million question has revolved around a change in the benefit plan in 1998, which changed the formula.

In Rounds’ case, he would get a monthly pension payout of $2,567 under the old formula.

Under the freeze of benefits since 1998, his monthly payout would be only $389, according to the lawsuit.

The county has argued in court that the county lawfully amended the pension plan.

For the employees reaching retirement age, their livelihoods hinge on how this decision plays out. Rounds said there are employees that are hanging on, seeing what their future will look like.

"If we don't have anything to live on, how can we retire?” Rounds asked. “... They're hoping and praying that Judge (Martha) Christian does the right thing so we can start getting our pension."

Bo Farmer, another of the plaintiffs, retired more than a year ago after 33.5 years with the county fire department.

Under the old formula, Farmer said he would be getting nearly $3,200 per month. Currently, he draws $508 per month.

"It's almost unheard of, 30-plus years in public services,” Farmer said. “It takes a toll on you."

Farmer said he feels he has fulfilled his obligations and wants the county to hold up its end of the bargain.

"I just don't understand why they won't do the right thing," he said.

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Hall County Superior Court fills to capacity Thursday, March 1, 2018, with current and retired Hall County employees for the first hearing regarding the estimated $75 million class-action lawsuit on Hall County employee pensions. - photo by Scott Rogers

After depositions and packed courthouse hearings, Christian granted summary judgment in November 2019 to the Hall County government.

“However, the County did not adopt the pension plan changes via an ordinance, but rather via motion and resolution, which it was authorized to do. An ordinance is fundamentally different from a resolution or a motion. An ordinance is a law, whereas a resolution is not a law, is less formal than an ordinance and simply reflects the will or opinion of a local governing authority on a subject. Under Georgia law, resolutions do not need to be in any particular form,” Christian wrote in an order.

Christian is a senior judge who was appointed to the case after the other judges recused themselves.

The plaintiffs immediately announced an appeal. Almost a year later, the employees would get a win in the Court of Appeals, which reversed part of the decision and sent the case back to Superior Court.

The appellate court wrote that the trial court’s ruling did not take into account a recent DeKalb County case decided in October 2019 by the Georgia Supreme Court. Former DeKalb County employees sued their school district for “breaching an agreement to provide two years advance notice prior to suspending contributions to their DeKalb County Tax-Sheltered Annuity Plan,” according to the Georgia Supreme Court.

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled in favor of the DeKalb employees.

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Judge Martha Christian listens to arguments Thursday, March 1, 2018, in Hall County Superior Court during the first hearing regarding the estimated $75 million class-action lawsuit on Hall County employee pensions. - photo by Scott Rogers

According to court documents filed in Hall County Superior Court, the plaintiffs agreed with the trial court’s request for mediation to resolve the case.

“However, (the) defendants requested to file briefing on the (Court of Appeals) remand issues,” according to court documents.

The parties sent their briefs to Christian in August.

Christian sent an email Nov. 9 to the attorneys stating she had completed “another round of reviewing the record in this case” and gave both sides a chance to review her findings.

If they disagreed with what she wrote, Christian asked for them to make specific citations to the record to support where she got it wrong.

“I hope that this procedure will focus us all on the Court of Appeals remand and we do not rehash what has been exhaustively briefed and argued,” Christian wrote. “After I get your briefs, I will do an order.”

One of the biggest issues the plaintiffs disagreed with in Christian’s order was a statement that former Hall County Board of Commissioners Chairman Al Gainey “did not have authority to make any other changes” to the benefit plan or “adopt a completely new plan.”

Plaintiffs’ attorney Michael Kramer wrote Dec. 23 that the court’s “revised and contrary version” of the facts appeared to be an attempt to construct a history that “doubles down … on the court’s original summary judgment decision” to avoid a jury trial.

The defendants also wrote that the line about Gainey not having authority to adopt a new plan was not supported by the evidence in the case.

The county has also filed a response to the findings Dec. 28 clarifying some of the timeline and parties involved at different points in the timeline.

Hall County government, through its spokeswoman Katie Crumley, declined an interview regarding the case. The county’s attorney, William Buechner, and Kramer did not return a request for comment.

The Times requested the amount spent by the Hall County government in attorney’s fees, but that information was not available as of press time Tuesday, Jan. 11.