Judge extends restraining order in lawsuit against MFPD directors
August 03, 2005 - A judge last week extended a temporary restraining order prohibiting enactment of proposed changes to the Mehlville Fire Pro-tection District's disability plan.
St. Louis County Circuit Judge Barbara Ann Crancer initially granted the temporary restraining order July 1 in response to a lawsuit filed against the Board of Directors by Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters challenging the proposed changes to the disability plan.
After a hearing Friday morning in which an attorney representing Local 1889 raised a new allegation, Crancer extended the temporary restraining order until Tuesday — after the Call went to press — saying she would need more time to make her decision.
John Goffstein, an attorney with Bartley Goffstein who is representing Local 1889, introduced the new allegation, contending the board violated several provisions of Chapter 105 of state law.
State law provides that a legislative body or committee, before taking final action on any "substantial proposed change" in plan benefits, must have an actuary prepare a statement regarding the cost of such change. State law defines a "substantial proposed change" as a "proposed change in future plan benefits which would increase or decrease the total contribution percent by at least one-quarter of 1 percent of active employee payroll, or would increase or decrease a plan benefit by 5 percent of more, or would materially affect the actuarial soundness of the plan."
The Board of Directors unanimously approved a disability plan through Standard Insurance at the June 6 board meeting. District employees then were covered by two disability plans — the Standard Insurance plan and the original self-funded disability benefits that were part of the district's pension plan.
At the June 20 meeting, the board voted 2-1, with Secre-tary Dan Ottoline opposed, to approve an amendment to remove the original disability benefits from the pension plan for injuries that occurred after July 1. Employees then would be covered by the Standard Insurance plan, which extended around-the-clock coverage to employees, but reduced the maximum benefit payments by 15 percent.
Ottoline, Treasurer Bonnie Stegman and Local 1889 President Chris Francis testified Friday that they were un-aware of any actuarial reports being filed before the change in disability plans.
Mathew Hoffman, the district's legal counsel, said the new allegations weren't reflected in the initial petition filed by Goffstein.
"The attorney for the union shifted focus of the lawsuit," Hoffman said.
Paul Slocomb, Hoffman's partner, said the definition for a "substantial proposed change" is precise and mathematical. He contended that Goffstein had not met the burden of proof showing that the change to the disability plan meets that mathematical definition.
During the hearing, Goffstein and Slocomb focused on the lawsuit's allegation that the board members violated the state's Open Meetings and Records Law, also called the Sunshine Law, by not providing the required 24-hour notice of changes to the agenda for the June 20 meeting.
The agenda for the June 20 board meeting included an item under old business called "Life & Disability In-surance Alternatives," and the agenda for the June 20 pension meeting included an item under old business called "Plan Amendment #4 Regarding Disability Benefits." At the beginning of the June 20 board meeting, Stegman motioned for the Amendment 4 item be moved to the board meeting agenda and the board approved the motion 2-1, with Ottoline opposed.
Goffstein contended that board members violated the Sunshine Law because notice of the vote on Amendment 4, which removed the disability benefits from the pension plan, at the board meeting was not posted 24 hours ahead of time, but instead occurred at the beginning of meeting.
Slocomb said the law only requires tentative agendas to be posted and that the item "Life & Disability Insurance Alternatives" was sufficient notice.
The hearing also focused on the allegations that the board members violated the meet and confer act by refusing to meet and confer with union members about the Standard Contract.
"Firefighters have asked to meet and confer, they've submitted proposals and we've been completely blown off... ," Goffstein said at the hearing.
Slocomb said the meet and confer law does not apply in the first place because, based on Francis' testimony, union members did not actually submit alternative proposals to the board, they only asked for time to discuss alternatives to the plan.
"If you think the meet and confer act does apply, the meet and confer act has been met," Slocomb told the judge.
Slocomb said the Standard Insurance contract was discussed several weeks before it was approved, brokers gave presentations about the plan at board meetings, and the board offered small break-out sessions to district employees to learn about the plan.
"Under the statute, it means meet and discuss, it does not mean agree because constitutionally we cannot enter a contract," Slocomb told the judge.
Although the hearing mostly focused on the alleged violations of the "substantial proposed change" act, the Sun-shine Law and the meet and confer act, the lawsuit also alleges several other violations.
The suit alleges that the board members violated state law by effecting a partial plan termination and that they violated the due process clauses of the Missouri Consti-tution and the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by unlawfully depriving union members of vested and/or accrued pension and disability retirement benefits. It also alleges the board members violated their fiduciary duties of acting in the best interest of the district employees.
Crancer originally granted the temporary restraining order prohibiting enactment of the proposed changes to the district's disability plan until July 15, when a hearing was scheduled to be conducted on the lawsuit filed by Local 1889. The hearing was rescheduled for Friday.
At the hearing, Goffstein asked the judge to grant a preliminary injunction on the district's action to change the disability benefits. Slocomb asked the judge to dissolve the temporary restraining order and to dismiss the case without the preliminary injunction.
Crancer said she will have a decision by 5 p.m. Tuesday — after the Call went to press.