Baltimore firefighters must serve 5 more years before being eligible for retirement benefits
First responder unions voiced frustration over a court ruling that upholds the city’s right to raise the retirement age
BALTIMORE — Leaders of the Baltimore police and fire unions say they are disappointed by a Court of Appeals ruling upholding changes to the city’s pension plan that required first responders to serve an additional five years before being eligible for retirement benefits.
Maryland’s highest court acknowledged the difficulties for “employees who have devoted their careers to public service,” but said a city’s dire situation sometimes leaves leaders with little choice but to make hard financial decisions.
The lawsuit by Baltimore police and firefighters has been winding through the courts since a 2010 city council decision to change existing laws on when employees can retire and receive pension benefits. The justices agreed with lower court rulings that that the city had a right to change pension rules for those who had not yet qualified to retire, but couldn’t alter rules for those who had put in enough years to to be fully vested.
Local police and fire union officials said the ruling is difficult for a profession already hard hit.
“A lot of members who are upset about the ruling, and feel they were cheated and they are very disappointed. There’s already a huge morale problem in this fire department,” said Rich Langford, president of the Baltimore Firefighters Local 734.
He and the head of Baltimore’s police union expressed frustration with the decision, calling it the latest blow to morale among the city’s first responders who face staffing shortages amid high call volumes, and other concerns.
The lawsuit came after the city, facing a staggering budget shortfall following the 2008 financial crises, added five years to when police officers and firefighters could retire and get benefits.
“[T]he city may have to choose between the lesser of two evils: change the plan without the consent, and to the consternation, of employees who have devoted their careers to public service; or keep the plan as is and put the city deeper into debt, perhaps even risking financial ruin. In 2010, Baltimore City faced this choice,” said the Court of Appeals opinion, written by Judge Jonathan Biran.
Ultimately, the city ordinance changes “made reasonable and necessary prospective changes,” the opinion said.
The opinion affirms a lower court ruling by Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Julie R. Rubin in 2019.
Rubin ruled that retirees and retirement-eligible police officers and firefighters were entitled to receive a “variable benefit,” an annual increase tied to the stock market, and that they were entitled to seek damages for the lost benefits. But she also ruled that the city could make modifications to the pension contract that extended the years of service from 20 to 25 years for employees to receive pension benefits.
The Court of Appeals opinion noted that the changes create a hardship for some employees moving the “goalposts very shortly before they were about to cross the goal line and achieve Service Retirement eligibility. Many of those employees undoubtedly had given the best years of their careers to Baltimore City, serving the public daily in dangerous and stressful jobs.”
Additionally, the Court of Appeals ruling affirmed the lower court’s computation of $31 million in damages to retirees who had already earned their pensions.
“I’m pleased that they found that there was breech of contract,” said Charles O. Monk II, an attorney for the unions. “I’m disappointed in the way that the trial and the appeals court found the computation of damages.”
He said based on their calculations, he believed the 6,000 beneficiaries, both retirees and spouses, were eligible for millions more, but the court disagreed.
Monk said Monday he is still reviewing the entire ruling, and has not made any decisions about next steps.
The leadership of the unions said the court’s ruling is a disappointment to active members who felt they were cheated by the changes to their contract.
In a letter obtained by The Baltimore Sun, sent to to police union members, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 President Sgt. Mike Mancuso said that the more than decade-long litigation was an attempt “to hold the city accountable for what we felt was a breach of contract, but by no means was this the decision we were looking for in terms of the active members and some of the retirees.”
Mancuso wrote that the ruling left open the possibility that the city could continue extending the length of service before retirement.
“As to the active members portion of this suit, the question of the day has been whether or not the city can now raise the retirement years of service to 30 years. The short answer, it appears, is that they can,” Mancuso wrote. “A precedent has now been set. The next question then is why should I stay with the Baltimore Police Department not knowing if the 25-year retirement will be increased to a 30-year retirement at the whim of an already untrustworthy city government.”
Mancuso wrote the many officers will have to make decisions, including whether to leave for another department.
“I believe remaining with the BPD is an individual decision but keep in mind that the city has no boundaries as to how far they will go to harm the lives of those who put their own lives on the line to protect its citizens,” he said. “I urge you to do what is best for you and your families even if that means joining another department that will treat you with the respect you deserve.”
The City Solicitor’s Office and Mayor Brandon Scott’s spokesman did not return calls seeking comment.