Firefighters Lose Challenge To Repeal Of Pension Buy-Back Ordinances

The collective bargaining agreement covering firefighters working for the City of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania does not permit bargaining unit members to “buy back” time served in another City pension fund, or, in other words, does not allow for the purchase of service credits for time spent in other City jobs. In 2001, the City adopted ordinances that would permit, for the first time, firefighters to buy back all of the time served as City employees in another capacity, ordinances that would permit firefighters to retire earlier than otherwise scheduled.

Local 104 of the International Association of Fire Fighters filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the City, alleging that pension issues were mandatory for bargaining and could not be unilaterally implemented by the City. The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board agreed, and found the City had committed an unfair labor practice violation by enacting the ordinances without collective bargaining. Pursuant to the order of the Board, the City repealed the pension buy-back ordinances.

Two firefighters then sued the City, challenging the repeal of the ordinances. Both of the firefighters had worked in other City jobs and, during the period the pension buy-back ordinances were in effect, had bought back the time served in other City departments. Though the City’s Pension Board refunded the firefighters’ buy-back payments, plus interest, the firefighters claimed they had a legal entitlement to participate in the buy-back.

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, which acts as the Court of Appeals in Pennsylvania, ruled against the firefighters. The Court found that the ordinances were void “ab initio,” or from the moment it was enacted. The Court found that “the enactment of the ordinances constituted a violation of the collective bargaining laws, which provide that the subject of pensions is a mandatory subject of bargaining. The City did not have a legal authority to recognize pension buy backs or to make deductions from the firefighters’ paychecks to fund the buy backs. Here, the contract was in effect at the time the ordinances were enacted, and the contract made reference to the pension plan such that it would remain in effect during the life of the contract. The ordinances were, thus, enacted illegally and not only constituted an unfair labor practice, but also constituted a breach of the contract. The rescission of the ordinances returned the firefighters to the status quo as though the ordinances were never enacted.”

Delaney v. City of Wilkes-Barre, 947 A.2d 854 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2008).

This article appears in the July 2008 issue