Referring to a “bait and switch” and employees getting “snookered,” attorney Ed Buckley argued Wednesday, May 22, for judgment in favor of a class of Hall County employees regarding their pension payouts.
Wednesday marked the second major hearing in the lawsuit first filed in January 2017, which the attorneys said originally involved about 70 current employees and about 30 that retired after July 1, 2008. The majority are first responders. Roughly 100 people gathered in the Hall County courtroom Wednesday, many being active and former county employees.
“The bait and switch is, ‘Hey, you’re going to make a lot more money under the defined contribution plan. But, of course, you’re not going to be using our money.’ You’re going to be using your own, and only if you can afford to contribute to the defined contribution plan,” Buckley said.
The change regarding the county pension plan happened in 1998, when the plaintiffs’ attorney Michael Kramer claimed the county “froze plaintiffs’ accrued pension benefits and failed to make the required annual employer contributions to plaintiffs’ individual retirement accounts.”
Why this matters, what’s next
Times reporter Nick Watson has followed this case since the lawsuit was filed in January 2017. Current and former county employees say unlawful “freezes” to the Hall County pension plan have resulted in much reduced payouts. Wednesday’s hearing regarded motions for summary judgment, essentially deciding whether issues in the case will be decided by a judge or go to a jury. Next, attorneys will file supplemental briefs, and the judge will rule on the motions.
The result, according to the plaintiffs, is much reduced pension payouts and employees delaying retirement, afraid they won’t be able to afford it.
The lawsuit was filed against Hall County, the board of commissioners and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. The ACCG attorneys previously argued they are the sponsor of the plan but have no obligation to “police the county’s contributions or their amendments.”
Judge Martha Christian said she had read through the materials submitted ahead of the hearing, in which Hall County, the employees and ACCG argued motions for summary judgment, a situation in which a judge decides whether there are any issues that would require a jury or if a ruling can be made without one.
Attorney Ben Mathis, representing the Hall County defendants, said the 1987 plan allowed discretion in amending future employee plans.
Mathis claimed the employees’ attorneys were trying to “parse language to find something to grasp on to” and had given different theories throughout the case.
“This is not a fraud” was part of the heading on a slide in Mathis’ presentation.
Mathis called the issue at hand a good faith attempt of a new plan thought at one time to be more fruitful for the retirees.
Mathis said that the statute of limitations bars the breach of contract and impairment claims, though Buckley would later argue that the clock starts anew when the plan’s payments start being made.
In response to Mathis’ arguments, Buckley said that the December 1999 plan supersedes the February 1998 plan, with the former plan making no mention of the freeze of the defined benefit plan and “reaffirms the pension calculations for the pre-freeze plan.”
A misleading PowerPoint presentation at a 1997 work session projected higher benefits in the defined contribution plan than the defined benefit plan, Buckley said.
“I believe that there were people on the pension committee who were snookered. I think that there may have even been board members who were snookered. … They weren’t presented with accurate information in a transparent way,” Buckley said.
According to the original complaint, lead plaintiff Bradford Rounds’ monthly pension benefit would be $2,567 under the plan’s formula.
“Under defendants’ ‘freeze’ of his accrued pension benefits as of July 1, 1998, his ‘frozen’ monthly pension benefit is only $389 per month,” according to the lawsuit.
Christian did not give an indication to the attorneys when she might rule on the motions for summary judgment, as the parties will be granted time to submit additional documents to buttress their positions, Kramer said.
“We think that the court should grant our motion for summary judgment, that the freeze was clearly unlawfully adopted and that any freeze is null and void as matter of law, which would mean it doesn’t have to go to a jury at all. But if she feels that she doesn’t feel comfortable granting a motion for summary judgment, then there are material issues of fact that are disputed between the parties and that a jury should decide,” Kramer said.