NEW ORLEANS – The impact of a Louisiana Supreme Court decision in favor of Kenner firefighters in a pension case is not yet clear, but may herald favorable outcomes for plaintiffs in similar cases, an attorney with the law firm who represented the firefighters said in an interview.
"I hope it's broad," Paula Bruner, an attorney with Robein, Urann, Spencer, Picard & Cangemi in Metairie, recently told that Louisiana Record. "I'm not aware of other pension cases like this, but I don't doubt there are some. This decision certainly covers the city of Kenner and its firefighters. I believe this decision will affect the definition of earned compensation and how it is applied in the state of Louisiana."
In its opinion handed down on Jan. 27, the high court upheld last year's ruling by a state 5th Circuit Court of Appeal. The 5th Circuit's ruling reversed a Jefferson Parish judge’s dismissal of the class-action lawsuit filed in 2010 by Kenner firefighters who claimed they were owed more in pension contributions than the city was paying at the time.
In handing down that opinion, the Supreme Court found "that the trial court erred in granting Kenner’s motion for summary judgment on each of the four types of compensation at issue," Justice Scott J. Crichton wrote in the opinion.
Those four types of compensation were educational incentive pay, seniority incentive pay, holiday pay and acting pay.
"We further hold that the court of appeal was correct to find no genuine issues of material fact that the four payment types must be included as 'earnable compensation' and that the Firefighters were entitled to judgment as a matter of law," Crichton wrote.
The case has come a long way since 1999 when the city merged Kenner firefighters' retirement system with that of the state. Prior to that, the city based firefighters' pension contributions on their basic salary, in addition to state-mandated supplemental payments for full-time employees.
"There's a lot of history here," Bruner said, explaining that many of elements in the case already had been decided at various trials in the past 15 years.
Crichton's opinion for the state Supreme Court details some of that history in a footnote. That history includes attempts by the Kenner firefighters in the lawsuit to seek "relief on wage issues, specifically retroactive and forward pay adjustments on Kenner’s failure to include state supplemental pay in the calculation of longevity, holiday, and overtime pay."
The opinion goes on to say, "In April 2012, the Firefighters filed a motion for partial summary judgment on both the wages and pension issues. The trial court denied the motion on the pensions, but granted the motion on the wage issues."
Bruner said the only claim remaining in the case was the pension issue.
Cases like this are relatively rare in Louisiana, Bruner said.
"I can tell you, though, this was the first impression for the court," she said. "This certainly pertains to firefighters in Kenner and to the definition of earnable compensation."
With lack of much precedent, Kenner firefighters relied, by analogy, on Fishbein vs LSU. That case, decided in 2007, concerned a Louisiana State University physician instructor during a time when earnable income was not included with state supplemental pay.
"It does now, but it didn't then," Bruner said.
With this decision, litigants in similar cases now have more to go on when considering similar pension definitions.
"I believe the lesson that is re-enforced by the Supreme Court is that these pension laws should be construed in favor of the beneficiary, the retiree," Bruner said.