Police-backed federal suit accuses Fort Worth of constitutional violations in cutting pensions

Posted Monday, Nov. 19, 2012  comments  Print Reprints

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FORT WORTH -- Two members of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association filed suit in federal court on Monday, accusing the city of contract impairment, violation of due process, unlawful taking of property and violating both the U.S. and Texas constitutions in reducing pension benefits for future service.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Fort Worth by association President Steve Hall, a current police sergeant, and former president Rick Van Houten, a Fort Worth police officer who's running for the top office of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas.

"We approached the city trying to work toward a successful result," Hall said in an interview, referring to pension negotiations. "It's our opinion the city had no intention of listening to us, even though we thought we brought a fair offer to the table."

Hall said the federal suit was filed on behalf of Van Houten and him to establish standing to sue.

"The POA doesn't have any standing," he said. "It's the representative members who have standing to sue."

The POA is handling the ligitation, with help from CLEAT and possibly other organizations, Hall said.

City officials declined to comment, a spokesman said.

On Oct. 23, the City Council approved significant cuts in employees pension benefits in an effort to close the plan's fast-growing $748 million unfunded gap. The same day, the city filed its own suit in state District Court, asking a judge to declare the pension cuts legal under the state constitution.

The city's suit also asked the judge to declare a Police Officers Association vote -- in which members voted overwhelmingly to raise their pension contributions and leave more money in the retirement fund in exchange for retaining their benefits formula -- was illegal because it didn't include firefighters and general employees.

The council later approved the payment of $100,000 to the Fort Worth law firm Kelly, Hart & Hallman to represent it in the litigation.

Under the pension changes, the city will reduce the multiplier used in calculating benefits, raise the number of years used in figuring base retirement pay, and eliminate overtime in pension calculations.

Critics of the plan say police routinely spike their pensions with a lot of overtime in their final years.

The city will also give employees a one-time option to change their retirement pay to include a flat 2 percent annual cost of living adjustment, instead of a variable annual increase that pays off only when the number of years to extinguish the plan's unfunded liability falls below a certain level.

The changes go into effect Jan. 1 for new police officers, and Oct. 1 next year for the future service of current police and general employees. The city is entering contract talks with firefighters and will pursue similar changes with them.

General employees don't have contracts. Police officers' contract, under negotiation, doesn't cover their pension. So the City Council didn't need an agreement to change those two groups' benefits.

The POA has argued that the cuts are tantamount to an illegal reduction in benefits for vested employees, barred by the state constitution, and had said it would sue after the City Council approved the changes.

The suit alleges the city's actions violate the 5th and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

"We thought [federal court] was the most appropriate venue" to sue, Hall said.

Scott Nishimura, 817-390-7808

Twitter: @JScottNishimura

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