Court Reverses Decision Granting Retired Firefighters’ Retroactive Pension Adjustments

IAFF Local 1148 represents firefighters in the City of Meriden, Connecticut. The parties were bound by a CBA spanning July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2015. The parties exercised a wage reopener provision in the final year of the contract. Those wage negotiations reached impasse, and interest arbitration hearings were held at the end of 2014. In February 2015, the arbitration panel awarded a 2% raise effective January 1, 2015, which was “final and binding” as provided by state law. The award did not address the effect of this increase, if any, on the pension benefits of members who retired after its effective date, but before its issuance date.

The CBA between the parties also incorporated by reference the terms of the City’s firefighter pension plan. According to those terms, firefighters were required to retire at age 65, and may retire voluntarily before that age with 25 years of experience. The normal pension benefit was calculated by reference to the member’s base pay which he or she “received at the time of retirement.” In situations where a firefighter was forced to retire due to age in the context of ongoing contract negotiations, the pension plan explicitly permitted for a retroactive recalculation of pension benefits once the contract was finalized. The plan did not similarly allow for the recalculation of benefits for members who voluntarily retired during contract negotiations. Finally, the plan explicitly stated that “in no event will a retroactive benefit payment be made.”

In January 2015, prior to the issuance of the award, three union members retired voluntarily with 25 years of experience prior to reaching age 65. Their pensions were calculated based on their wages at the time of retirement.  Approximately five years later, the retirees sued the City for breaching the CBA by failing to recalculate their pension benefits in accordance with the retroactive 2% wage increase issued by the arbitration panel. The trial court agreed and ordered the City to recalculate the pension benefits. The City appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court, which reversed in part.

The Court found that the trial court improperly ordered the City to recalculate the members’ pension benefits. It noted that each side’s argument was plausible. The Union argued that the award clearly set the 2% pay increase to be effective January 1, 2015, when the members were still active employees. Consequently, their pension benefits should have been recalculated to reflect this increase. On the other hand, the City argued that the pension plan’s terms were clear – pension benefits were to be calculated based on the base salary received at the time of retirement. Since the plaintiffs’ pensions were correctly calculated according to their base salary at the time of retirement, their pensions should not be adjusted.

As the parties did not submit any extrinsic evidence about the intended meaning of the relevant contract language, the Court relied on legal principles of contract interpretation. Most relevant here is the principle of “expressio unius est exclusio alterius, meaning ‘the expression of one thing is the exclusion of another.’” The Court found that by granting the right to recalculated pension benefits after the resolution of contract negotiations to mandatory retirees, but not voluntary retirees, the parties intended to exclude voluntary retirees from that right.

The Court added, “Our conclusion that the pension plan does not permit the recalculation of pension benefits for voluntary retirees following a negotiated wage increase with retroactive effect is bolstered by Article IX, §1(a), of the plan, which provides in relevant part that ‘in no event will a retroactive benefit payment be made,’ and Article VI, §2(b), of the plan, which provides that a retiree’s base rate of pay is limited to the amount ‘a member was receiving at the time of retirement.’ Reading these contractual provisions together, as we are required to do, we conclude that the defendants did not breach the operative contract by failing to recalculate the plaintiffs’ pension benefits to reflect the retroactive wage increase in the interest arbitration award.”

Stiegler v. City of Meriden, 348 Conn. 452 (Conn., 2024).

This article appears in the May 2024 issue of our monthly newsletter, Public Safety Labor News.

Also in the May 2024 issue:

  • Officers Were Not Speaking On Matter Of Public Concern In Joining Privacy Lawsuit
  • Arbitration Award Upheld, Granting Disability Benefits To CO
  • LEOSA Trumps NJ Statute Limiting Retired Officers’ Carry Rights
  • Criminal Charges Quashed Against Deputy After Detainee Died In Custody
  • Police Officer’s First Amendment Retaliation Claim Fails
  • Trial Court Improperly Vacated Arbitration Award Denying Grievance Based On Missed Promotion
  • Weingarten Rep Should Have Been Allowed To Caucus With Member During Interview
  • Court Affirms $2 Million Verdict In Officer’s Discrimination Claim
  • Arbitrator Ordered To Hold Additional Hearing On Contract Interpretation Issue
  • Employer Acted In Bad Faith By Implementing New Contract Too Slowly
  • Q & A
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