Past and present Joplin firefighters and police officers testified Tuesday about changes in the city of Joplin’s Police and Firemen’s Pension Fund that resulted in a lawsuit.
The one-day trial in Jasper County Circuit Court in Joplin involved a 2011 lawsuit filed by disabled fireman Tom Robertson, himself a former member of the pension board of trustees. He was joined by other members of the Joplin Fire Department represented by the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 59.
Circuit Judge David Mouton is hearing the case. The city waived a jury trial. After testimony was completed Tuesday, attorneys in the case were given time to file their final documents before the judge renders a decision.
Mouton previously ruled in favor of Robertson, but the decision was overturned by the Missouri Court of Appeals at Springfield. The appeals ruling returned the case to the circuit court to make determinations on two other counts in the lawsuit that were not heard in the original trial.
Robertson, 57, suffers from a lung ailment that was caused by breathing smoke for too long at a fire scene in 2010. It induced chemical pneumonia and reduced his lung capacity to a level that prevents him from being physically able to work as a firefighter.
When he applied for disability benefits from the pension plan, he expected to receive half-pay for his nearly 16 years of service to the city. But his benefit was reduced because he had not reached the 20 years of service that city pension plan officials said was required to receive half-pay. He is represented by attorney David R. Bohm of St. Louis.
The city and the pension board contend that police and fire members of the pension plan, which includes retirees, voted in 1999 to reduce the disability and death pay calculation.
Karl Blanchard, a Joplin attorney who represents the city of Joplin and the pension board, said in court Tuesday that the appeals court ruling said the pension plan’s wording is unambiguous and that the rules clearly set out the requirement to prorate benefits based on years of service.
Robertson testified that while he worked as a firefighter and served on the pension board he believed that duty-related injury and death required a payout that was the same as a 20-year retirement.
He said he told new firefighters that was the rule when he was introducing them to the details of the plan.
He said he told them that in exchange for the payments into the pension fund, if they were injured, “it would be just like if they worked 20 years” and were retiring. “We would be fully covered.” In his case, the reduction lowered his disability pay $400 to $500 a month.
Robertson identified copies of the pay plan rules he used to make that assertion as well as annuity reports for the fund and other documents that described that benefit in the plan.
Retired Joplin police officer Keith Meyer, who also served on the pension board in past years, as well as retired fire Chief Harry Guinn and Battalion Chief Tim Woodward, also testified. They said they did not vote to reduce the disability or death benefits of the plan or were not aware that any changes that had been enacted over the years.
Woodward testified about a remark that police Capt. Larry Swinehart, a current pension board member, made several years ago during a meeting between police and fire representatives regarding whether they would support Robertson’s lawsuit.
Swinehart testified the remark of “that’s not the horse we want to put the saddle on” or words to that effect was not a criticism of Robertson or his lawsuit. He said he meant that if there was a time to have filed a lawsuit to challenge the calculation, it was when the death benefit was calculated for Officer Larry Nielson’s widow. Nielson died of injuries suffered in a 2004 explosion while on a police call to check the well-being of a resident. That case predated Robertson’s disability claim.
The Fraternal Order of Police is a union group that represents some Joplin police officers. Members of that group voted not to enter the Robertson lawsuit and took the position that they supported the city’s side of the case.
Swinehart, asked by Blanchard if there is a way to amend the pension plan if members want to change disability and injury pay, said that an election could be proposed to amend the rules.
He said his decision not to support the Robertson lawsuit or to propose a change to the calculation comes from his fiduciary duty to protect the plan for past, current and future members. He said that if disability and death benefits were increased and several members of a department were injured or killed at one time, the cost to the pension fund could imperil its solvency.
As a result of the case, members of the plan have approved buying a disability insurance policy to pay claims to protect the fund, Swinehart testified.
Tom Robertson now works part time as a gate and ticket agent for American Airlines at the Joplin Regional Airport.