Dispute over city police, firefighter retirees health insurance benefits bounces back to state court

Court of Appeals says jury can decide whether promises about retirement benefits were broken

nophillips@thestate.comJanuary 24, 2013 

— Retired Columbia police and firefighters who sued the city over changes to their insurance costs may see a jury decide whether promises were broken over how much that insurance would cost.

The S.C. Court of Appeals on Wednesday issued a ruling that sends the case back to Richland County circuit court, where a judge had dismissed the lawsuit, said Nancy Bloodgood, a Charleston attorney who represented the police and firefighters in the case. The lawsuit originally was filed in 2009 by 13 retired firefighters and police officers. Seven firefighters appealed Circuit Judge James Barber’s decision to stop the lawsuit before the case could be heard by a jury.

The city has the option to ask the S.C. Supreme Court to consider the case, but Allen Nickles, an attorney for the city, said it was too early to say what his legal step would be.

For years, the city offered free health insurance benefits to retired police and firefighters. That benefit enticed people to stay with their departments rather than leave for higher-paying jobs, several retired police and firefighters said.

Amid a budget crisis and a change in national accounting standards, the city of Columbia began charging their retirees health insurance premiums. Similar changes were made by local governments across the country and other lawsuits were filed, including one in Greenville.

In its decision, the appeals court determined that City Council had the authority to change the benefits and there was no contract between the city and its employees about their retirement benefits.

But the statements made to employees by supervisors about the retirement benefits could be enough grounds for the plaintiffs to have a claim, the appeals court ruled.

The retirees who sued the city of Columbia said the free health insurance for life was a promise from their supervisors. However, the city has argued that no city official was authorized to make the promise. And, it has said that the city employee handbook where the benefits were written out was not a contract between the city and the workers.

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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