The Missouri Supreme Court last week declined to hear a lawsuit filed by union employees against the Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors.
Attorney John Goffstein, who represents Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, had asked the Supreme Court in March to review the dismissal of a lawsuit that sought to prohibit the Board of Directors from implementing a disability-benefit contract with Standard Insurance and eliminating current disability benefits from the district’s existing pension plan.
On May 1, the union attorney’s application to transfer the lawsuit to the Supreme Court was denied.
Mathew Hoffman, the fire district’s legal counsel, said the Supreme Court’s decision brings to an end the lawsuit that was filed against the board by union employees in June 2005.
“At this time, it is my understanding that the appeals process has been exhausted,” he said Saturday. “I’m very pleased that the Supreme Court affirmed what we believed to be within the board powers from the initiation of this litigation. I know that the individual members of the Board of Directors are gratified that this matter has been resolved in their favor.”
Goffstein was unavailable for comment before the Call went to press.
In June 2005, Local 1889 filed the lawsuit in St. Louis County Circuit Court against the district’s three board members — Chairman Aaron Hilmer, Treasurer Bonnie Stegman and then-Secretary Dan Ottoline Sr. Ottoline did not seek re-election in April.
While Hilmer told the Call he is pleased the matter has been resolved in the district’s favor, he’s unhappy with the roughly $35,000 in legal fees the district has spent — not to mention the nearly two years district officials have spent in and out of court as a result of the lawsuit.
“We’re glad it’s over. We’re glad it’s over after 23 months of the actions that were brought upon by the union,” he said. “The sad part, though, is the cost to the district — not only the legal cost, the time it took away from us focusing on other things I wanted the board to be doing. But now, we’ll get to those things this summer.
“We have the legal costs, but also the people who are on the disability program we were unable to review, such as the case that was well-documented in print and televised media recently of a gentleman who’s received over $430,000 from the district while working at another ambulance district,” he said, also citing “the cost for the district to maintain the self-funded program for these past two years. But we’re glad it’s over … It’s also good because our names were on there as defendants (and) we have been exonerated of a lot of crazy charges that were laid on us.”
In August 2005, Judge Barbara Crancer granted a preliminary injunction prohibiting enactment of the proposed changes to the district’s disability plan. Crancer ruled that the Board of Directors did not follow the proper procedures to change retirement benefits under state law and the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA. She also ruled that the Board of Directors did not violate the state’s Meet and Confer Law or the Open Meetings and Records Law, also called the Sunshine Law.
On Feb. 24, 2006, Crancer granted the board’s motion for summary judgment, dissolving the preliminary injunction and dismissing Local 1889’s suit. Goffstein appealed Crancer’s ruling, and a three-judge panel of the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals in January issued an order affirming Crancer’s dismissal.
In a memorandum supplementing the order affirming Crancer’s ruling, the three-judge appellate court panel wrote, in part, “In their sole point relied on, plaintiffs argue that the trial court erred in granting the district’s motion for summary judgment because the motion only addressed two of the six counts in plaintiffs’ petition in violation of Rule 74.04. More specifically, plaintiffs argue that the district addressed only counts one and two of their petition, relating to ‘meet and confer’ and ‘public notice’ and the trial court ruled upon those counts only. We have reviewed the motion and the trial court’s judgment and we find that both sufficiently address all counts of plaintiffs’ petition.”
The memorandum also addresses Local 1889’s response to the district’s motion for summary judgment, stating, “Plaintiffs answer the district’s uncontroverted facts with numbered paragraphs containing legal conclusions, argumentative statements and remarkably few citations to the record.”
Hilmer said he wants to move forward with the Standard Insurance disability plan.
“What we’re doing, we’re changing it from a self-funded policy where if two of the three members of the Board of Directors said you were disabled, you’d receive that check for the rest of your life. There was never any language in there of: ‘Can you come back to work? Are you working another job? Are you gainfully employed somewhere else?’ There were a lot of reasons to make the change,” he said.
“We went in there. We looked at what are the vast majority of other fire districts and departments in St. Louis County doing? They had Standard Insurance. We got some bids back in May of ’05, and the board voted 3-0 to hire Standard Insurance,” he recalled. “… Standard Insurance covers people off the job also. So if they are injured at home or any other place off duty, this would also cover them for a long-term disability.
“If the employees whine that they don’t like this plan, they don’t have anyone to point the finger at except their own leadership and their own attorney they keep forking their union dues over to because we asked them repeatedly to bring us ideas, alternatives or suggestions,” Hilmer said. “They brought us nothing except saying: ‘We want it to stay the same and we’re going to sue you.”’
The board chairman noted that the Standard Insurance plan does offer a different benefit level than the old plan.
“The old plan was 75 percent of your current salary. Standard Insurance is 60 percent. But once again, we had richer plans. It would have been a little more money and we showed those to the union or the Pension Committee. We said: ‘Give us some ideas with these. Would you be interested in some of these?’ Nothing except nasty letters and lawsuits,” he said. “… They could have even brought us ideas to put a rider in for some of the offsets … We gave them plenty of time to do it and they never did it. So it is what it is, and it’s not for our lack of asking or lack of trying.”
Local 1889 also filed another lawsuit — still pending — against the Board of Directors in March 2006 after the board voted 2-1 to adopt an amendment and two resolutions changing the district’s pension plan from a defined-benefit plan to a defined-contribution plan.
Hilmer and Stegman voted in favor of the motions while Ottoline was opposed.