2/6/08

Collective bargaining triumphs in federal court

Twenty-nine Benton, Arkansas retirees who lost health insurance benefits in 2003 and 2004 are a step closer to regaining benefits and back premiums. U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court verdict awarding the premiums. Representing the nonuniformed retirees in court was their union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 2957.

Twenty-nine vested Benton retirees are entitled to payment of health insurance benefits dating back to 2003, justices ruled. The Eighth Circuit upheld the ruling of Saline County District Court, Benton Division. Jurists deterstarted mined the resolutions "were unconstitutional impairments" of the collective bargaining agreement. A similar lawsuit involving retired Benton police officers and firemen remains pending.

City Attorney Brent Houston said Benton's options will be reviewed in a meeting tentatively set for Thursday in the Benton Municipal Building.

The city is evaluating the Eighth Circuit's ruling with attorney David Fuqua of Central Arkansas Risk Management Association. CARMA, a group representing local governments, will bear all legal expenses for the litigation.

Houston foresees no further appeal. "I don't anticipate there being any fur- ther appeals or a motion for rehearing, which could be the next step," Houston said.

Benton could ask the Eighth Circuit to rehear the case, but the city would have to cite divergent rulings issued by other U.S. appeals courts, and those verdicts don't exist, Houston said.

The only other appeal could be to the U.S. Supreme Court, and that won't be done, he said.

As well as the city, defendants in the case include Mayor Rick Holland and 2003 aldermen Doug Stracener, Phillip Montalvo, Karla J. Haley,Willie Floyd, Freeman, Leroy Allen, Ann Hall, Robin Berry, Claudine Ramsey and Charles Cunningham. (The ruling misspelled the last names of Stracener and Cunningham).

Two resolutions, and subsequent cuts and end of retiree benefits, led to the lawsuit.

Here's a timeline:

• Oct. 13, 2003 - Council passes a resolution limiting fullhealth premiums to employees having 29 or more years service, effective Jan. 1, 2004. The city also ceases paying premiums for employees with less than 10 years' service, and would pay only 3 percent of premiums for each employee with 10 through 28 years' service.

Reduced payments were short-lived.

• March 22, 2004 - The council passes a resolution terminating all insurance payments for retirees. It states a belief that state law requires plaintiffs to pay all health-insurance benefits. The vote comes after state Attorney General's Office issues opinion advising that state law forbids paying insurance for retirees.

• May 17, 2004 - Plaintiffs filed suit in district court seeking to bar Benton from enforcing the March 22 resolution.

• Feb. 17, 2006- The district court certifies the case for appeal.

• Jan. 9, 2007 - District court holds a one-day bench trial to review the plaintiff's remedy. After the trial, each side moved to amend its pleadings to conform to evidence.

Plaintiffs sought to include the council's October 2003 resolution as an additional breach of the collective bargaining agreement.

Defendants opposed the addition, "and moved to include the defense of illegality to its answer," justices wrote.

• Jan. 31, 2007 - District court accepts plaintiff's motion, and denies defendants' motion.

Union-negotiated collective bargaining for non-uniformed employees began in 1976. The agreement at issue became effective June 14, 2002 and expired Dec. 31, 2004. The agreement stated that "[r]etirement coverage is 100 percent paid by the City of Benton."

Benton started paying health insurance premiums for nonuniformed retirees' in 1989.

The Eighth Circuit justices issuing the ruling were W. Duane Benton, David S. Doty and Roger L. Wollman.

The status of a 4 percent pay hike planned for Benton employees this year is unknown. Aldermen planned to review the city's financial outlook this month to see if the increase could be awarded retroactively to Jan. 1.

(salinecountyvoice.com)

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