System Has Authority to Order Fire Department to Terminate Chief

One of the provisions in Oklahoma’s police and fire pension statutes is that “no person shall be employed in a fire department who has reached the age of 45 years, unless it appears he shall become eligible for retirement at the age of 65 years, or unless he retired from a municipal fire department in the State of Oklahoma.” When the City of Spencer hired Ronald Cummings, who was 49 years old, as its Fire Chief, the state pension system sued the City asking not just for a determination that Cummings was ineligible to become a member of the pension system, but also asking the Court to order the City to terminate Cummings.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court found not just that Cummings was ineligible for the Fire Chief, but also that the retirement system had the authority to ask a court to terminate Cummings. The Court reasoned that “a firefighter’s membership in the System is a precondition to employment when the municipality is a participating member. It is the System’s responsibility to seek enforcement of the mandatory employment condition.

“There exists neither ambiguity nor conflict here. The System has full statutory authority to bring in the District Court actions for declaratory relief to enforce the provisions of applicable state law under its administration. Because the City of Spencer is a participating member in the System, all of its firefighters must be members of the System, including its Fire Chief. The City hired Cummings in violation of the maximum age restrictions for employment in the Fire Department. The System requested an order that the City terminate the Fire Chief’s employment. It was an error for the trial court to deny the System the relief requested.”

State ex rel. Oklahoma Firefighters Pension and Retirement System v. City of Spencer, 2009 WL 3103746 (Okla. 2009).

This article appears in the December 2009 issue