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Judge grants summary judgment to county in employee pension case; plaintiffs announce appeal
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Attorney Michael Kramer makes arguments Thursday, March 1, 2018, to Judge Martha Christian in Hall County Superior Court during the first day of the hearing regarding the estimated $75 million class-action lawsuit on Hall County employee pensions. The lawsuit claims the county “froze plaintiffs’ accrued pension benefits and failed to make the required annual employer contributions to plaintiffs’ individual retirement accounts” in 1998. - photo by Scott Rogers

The judge overseeing an estimated $75 million class-action pension lawsuit granted summary judgment to the Hall County government and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, but the employees’ attorney said they are planning to appeal.

Roughly 100 current and retired employees were expected to be in the class for the lawsuit filed  in January 2017. Employees say unlawful freezes to the Hall County pension plan have resulted in much reduced payouts.

Judge Martha Christian heard arguments from both sides in May and indicated to both sides in July her intention to rule in favor of the county government and the county commissioners association.

The employees argued that the county was required to follow procedural requirements for ordinances when trying to change the county pension plan.

“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.

Attorney Michael Kramer said the employees intend to appeal their case to the Georgia Court of Appeals.

“On behalf of all current and retired Hall County employees affected by the 1998 pension ‘freeze,’ we disagree entirely with Judge Christian’s two orders granting summary judgment to both Defendants Hall County and Association of County Commissioners of Georgia. Hall County plaintiffs presented evidence of multiple procedural and substantive violations of the contractual, statutory and administrative legal obligations owed to Hall County’s employees and retirees,” Kramer said in a statement.

With the majority being first responders, there were roughly 70 current employees and about 30 employees that retired after July 1, 2008. 

Weeks before the judgment, Kramer and co-counsel Ed Buckley filed notice of a recent Georgia Supreme Court decision, DeKalb County School District v. Gold, which made similar arguments.  

In March 2011, four current and former DeKalb County employees sued the school district and county board of education 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 opinion.

According to a summary provided by the court, the DeKalb County Board of Education voted to suspend the annuity plan during the “Great Recession” with no prior notice to employees.

“In upholding the reversal even though doing so will result in an over $200 million dollar pension liability by the school district, the Georgia Supreme Court specifically pointed to the failure of the school district to follow its contractual obligations in terminating pension contributions. In the DeKalb v. Gold case there was only one violation of law and procedure. In our case, there are multiple violations. Plaintiffs will appeal both court orders to the Georgia Court of Appeals, and we expect to win as a matter of law or return to the trial court for a jury trial on any disputed factual issues,” Kramer said in a statement.

 “The basic components of the proposed changes to the County's pension plan included: establishing a new Defined Contribution Plan; ‘freezing’ the Defined Benefit plan so that current employees would receive, upon retirement, the amount they were entitled to receive under the Defined Benefit Plan as of the effective date of the Defined Contribution Plan, plus the amount they accumulated in the new Defined Contribution Plan; and providing for a 10-year window during which employees who were eligible to retire could choose to retire entirely under the Defined Benefit Plan or retire under the new Defined Contribution Plan,” according to the summary of facts in Christian’s order.


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