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Appeals court rules that St. Petersburg owes former officers for pension payments

ST. PETERSBURG — Hundreds of former police officers scored an important legal win in their four-year battle to get the city to pay them $1.5 million in pension contributions.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal on Friday upheld a lower court's decision that former officers are entitled to be paid back for what they contributed to city's police pension fund.

"I believe that the court has said very plainly and very clearly that they owe these officers this money," said the officers' attorney, Jean Kwall, on Tuesday.

Those officers left before working the 10 years required to become vested in the pension plan.

The city has long contended that it doesn't have to pay refunds to officers who aren't vested, and that those officers knew the rule when they went to work for the city and then left to work elsewhere.

But judges at the circuit, and now appellate, level have ruled that St. Petersburg's pension rules violate state law. And the three appellate judges from the 2nd DCA ruled unanimously.

"The City contends that the former police officers are bound by the terms of their employment contracts … that their contributions were forfeited absent vesting," the 2nd DCA wrote in its opinion.

"Any such agreement, however, seems contrary to the legislative intent and public policy … and may be void."

The city also raised several arguments about why it can't pay back the officers even if it agreed that they should be paid back. But the 2nd DCA rejected all of those, too.

"We're reviewing that opinion and looking at our options," said St. Petersburg Chief Assistant City Attorney Mark Winn.

Winn said he couldn't publicly discuss those options without first talking to the mayor and council.

But Mayor Bill Foster said Tuesday that he didn't know where the money to pay the former officers would come from. And the city is also on the hook for their six-figure legal fees.

The city would need a constitutional issue to file an appeal with the Florida Supreme Court. Or it could ask the 2nd DCA for a rehearing. The city has a month to file some kind of appeal.

"I believe their options are much more limited today than they were last week," Kwall said.

The original plaintiffs were six officers who sued the city in 2006. But when the lawsuit was given class-action status, hundreds of officers hired after March 12, 1999, became eligible to join the suit.

Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Appeals court rules that St. Petersburg owes former officers for pension payments 07/20/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 20, 2010 11:27pm]
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