A pension board’s decision to alter the terms of a pension does not affect those already vested in the system, the state appellate court said in an opinion Thursday.
The ruling, written by appellate Judge Gary Sherman, states that a change in any part of the agreement would need to be cleared with individuals in the system, not just union officials.
The opinion also said that an ordinance the Milwaukee County Pension Board passed in July 2011 in regards to a memorandum of understanding between the county and the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, Local 5001, is invalid when applied to those already hired, because it is not in line with a previous ordinance stating those in the system cannot have their pension benefits reduced.
The opinion stemmed from a lawsuit the nurses union and occupational therapist Susanne Stoker filed against the county and its pension board in December 2011.
Stoker, who was hired by the county in 1982, challenged the county’s assertion that she would have to use a lower percentage as a multiplier for future pension earnings. Milwaukee County Circuit Judge William Pocan ruled in favor of Stoker and the union.
The appellate court concurred, ruling that the new pension agreement did not affect individuals that already were part of the system.
Sherman noted the county’s assertion that “pension benefits could never be adjusted downward” was a “red herring.”
“Pension benefits can be lowered for anyone who is not vested,” he wrote. “Meaning, for example, those who have not yet been hired.”
Jeffrey Sweetland, an attorney with Hawks Quindel SC who represents the nurses union, said he and his clients were pleased with the appellate court’s ruling.
The county’s attorney, Alan Levy of Lindner & Marsack SC, did not return a phone call Thursday.
The nurses union is involved in two other lawsuits against Milwaukee County that concern pension and benefits issues. In one case, the appellate court said in October that county employees who retire after a health benefit is taken away are not eligible to receive the benefit, even if it was promised when they were hired.
The nurses union has petitioned the state Supreme Court to take up that case, Sweetland said. Another case is on hold at Milwaukee County Circuit Court, pending the higher courts’ decisions in the other two cases, he said.