W.Va. SC sides with city in suit over officer's disability benefits

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Jun 4, 2012

Chief Justice Menis Ketchum

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (Legal Newsline) - The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals last week ruled against a former police officer in a case over his disability benefits.

The state's high court, in its May 29 ruling, upheld a Kanawha County Circuit Court order granting summary judgment to the City of South Charleston Policemen's Pension and Relief Fund.

Plaintiff Joseph A. Compton appealed the order.

Compton was a South Charleston police officer from Nov. 18, 1988 to Dec. 5, 2006, after which he became disabled due to job-related injuries.

He applied for a disability pension with the city, and was initially awarded $2,300.68 a month, which was calculated based on his average monthly salary for the last 12 months of his employment.

However, Compton believed his pension would be based only on his last full month's salary, plus overtime, and argued it should have been $3,451.78 a month. He later sued.

The Kanawha Circuit Court granted the city's motion for summary judgment on June 23, 2011.

During the years Compton was employed by the city, at least four different methods for calculating pensions were used.

Then, in 2004, the city adopted regulations clarifying the method of calculating disability benefits. Thereafter, benefits would be calculated by taking the officer's preceding 12 months of salary and dividing that salary to find the average monthly salary of the officer. The officer would be granted 60 percent of this salary.

The circuit court explained that because at least four different methods of calculation were used, Compton "could not have relied on any one method to his detriment."

Moreover, the court found that the city correctly refused to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request, made by Compton prior to his filing the lawsuit, based on the personal information sought.

In his appeal before the state Supreme Court, Compton argued that the fact that four different calculation methods had been used creates a genuine issue of material fact that made the summary judgment "improper."

He also argued that the lack of a standard calculation procedure makes his expectation more critical, and that at least two officers had their pensions calculated according to his own method.

In sum, he argued that the calculation of his pension was "arbitrary and capricious," and that the lower court's ruling was contrary to law.

The city responded that the circuit court's order was proper.

The Court, in its five-page memorandum decision, agreed with the lower court's finding that Compton did not show there is an issue of material fact concerning how his pension should have been calculated.

"This Court found in Booth that after 10 years of service, a government pension may not be reduced and an employee has legitimate expectations that cannot be reduced. However, in this matter, there have been at least four different methods of calculation," the justices wrote.

"Therefore, this Court finds no error in the circuit court's finding that petitioner could not show that there was a system of pension calculation during his employment that he relied upon to his detriment."

As for Compton's FOIA request, the Court said it also found no error in the lower court's judgment.

"Petitioner argues that the information could have been given in a redacted manner, but provides no evidence that he asked for a redacted list or that he disputed the privacy interests asserted by the respondent," the justices wrote.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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