Local Trial Attorney Explains Complex Legal Issues At Stake in Trial Held This Week in Fireman Fund Case
Sometimes, you have to thank God there are geeky lawyers and judges willing to actually read the law. The Fireman’s Retirement Fund trial against the City of St. Louis is the perfect example of why the world needs lawyers. The mind-numbing law related to the Fireman’s Retirement Fund is more complicated than the Godfather trilogy. I am still trying to figure out who did what, when, and why (both in the Godfather and in the ordinances, city charters, statutes, and Missouri constitution).
While I have sometimes disagreed with the Honorable Judge Robert H. Dierker, I enjoy reading his opinions. Dierker is a renowned conservative, and sometimes controversial, intellectual St. Louis trial judge. He was the perfect man to sift through years and years of law on who has authority to do what when it comes to pension plans and city charters.
Dierker was assigned the grave duty of wading through the “tangled skein of cases, statutes and constitutional provisions”, as he called them, that relate to the Fireman’s Retirement System in St. Louis. Most lay people probably don’t have a strong grasp on the issues involved in this firestorm and neither do most St. Louis lawyers. . . because these issues deal with striking new 2012 city ordinances based on law that dates back fifty to a hundred years. Whenever you have to cite law in your argument from the 1800’s, you know it’s going to be a long night.
As to the main issues, in a nutshell, the City overhauled the pension plan for firemen because it became too taxing on the City budget. But promises are promises, right? The plaintiffs, the firemen, filed suit against the City to seek declaratory and injunctive relief to annul the ordinances enacted by the City in 2012.
One ordinance imposed restrictions on the authority of the FRS trustees to litigate changes in the City’s pension plan for firefighters. Another ordinance purported to repeal the existing pension plan and substitute a new plan with significant reductions in benefits for firefighters not yet retired.
“Pension Crisis Looms Despite Cuts” warns a front page headline in the The Wall Street Journal, September 22-23, 2012, p. 1. Playing out their parts in this national drama, the trustees of the Firemen’s Retirement System of St. Louis (FRS for short), Local 73 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, three active firefighter members of FRS, one retired beneficiary, and the City of St. Louis are before this Court as a result of the City’s efforts to curb its pension costs, which now consume an annual sum exceeding 50% of the actual payroll of active duty firefighters.”
On page 22 of his opinion, Dierker ruled that at this “preliminary injunction stage, the Court’s conclusion that the law forbids the merger of the FRS into the new plan militates in favor of granting a preliminary injunction to preserve the status quo.” Dierker issued this preliminary injunction Sept. 28 — three days before the start of the FRS’ fiscal year.
Among other things, the questionable ordinance transfers the assets of the Firemen’s Retirement System, the current plan, to a new plan called the Firefighters’ Retirement Plan… FRS to the FRP… got it?
As described in Dierker’s 34-page order, the ordinance raises firefighters’ contribution rate from 8 percent to 9 percent and reduces the pension benefits. While firefighters currently may retire with full pension benefits after 20 years of service, they would not be entitled to retire with full benefits until they reach 55 years of age and have 20 years of experience.
In essence, this stopped the City’s attempted overhaul from taking effect. In the Memorandum and Order, Dierker concluded the City lacked the authority to merge the assets of the current pension system into a new system, although the city could repeal the current system.
In September, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay blogged that Dierker affirmed the city’s “fundamental positions” when he concluded that the city can create a pension plan without state approval. While the judge said the city can’t merge the current and new pension systems, he said lawmakers seem to have contemplated having the two systems run parallel for at least some of the FRS members.
“We may have to amend the ordinance to comply with the judge’s order,” Slay said on his blog. “But, it creates a path — a local path — to stop the enormous cost increases in FRS, while being fair to taxpayers and firefighters.”
With the preliminary injunction Order, we have a pretty good idea what the Final Order will say, but nevertheless, the trial began Monday morning in Dierker’s courtroom. So where does that leave us… I think at the end of Disc One of the Godfather Part II.