Baltimore County asks Supreme Court to review long-running pension discrimination case

The Baltimore County government is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a lower court ruling in a long-running lawsuit over pensions — a ruling that would require the county to pay out millions of dollars to retired county workers unless it’s overturned.

In the lawsuit, filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of two correctional officers in 2007, the county was found to have improperly overcharged some workers for their pension contributions based on their age. The case affects workers who were employed before 2007, when the county scrapped its decades-long practice of setting pension contribution rates for new hires with age as the basis.

A September ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a lower court to determine how much the county must pay back those workers who overpaid. County officials previously estimated the county government might be on the hook for up to $19 million in payments to affected employees if the decision stands.

But in a petition to the Supreme Court filed Thursday, county attorneys argue the appeals court was incorrect in ruling that the workers must be paid back.

The appeals court based that ruling on a federal law called the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, with a three-judge panel writing that the law required the workers to be paid back. The county’s lawyers, though, argue that the ruling is “in direct conflict” with three other Supreme Court rulings on retroactive payments in cases involving pension plans.

In the filing, the county’s attorneys say they would have to review the files of 12,000 members of the pension plan, leading to “expense and disruption.”

“The Fourth Circuit’s holding is erroneous because it fails to recognize the havoc it will cause to the county’s pension plan administrators,” the attorneys wrote in the filing.

County Attorney Michael Field declined to comment on the filing.

The Supreme Court could decide to hear the case, or simply let the lower court decision stand.

This is the second time the county has tried to get the nation’s highest court to review the case. The court declined to hear an earlier appeal in 2014 when courts found that the county’s age-based pension contributions were improper.

The EEOC brought the lawsuit against the county after the two correctional officers initially filed complaints in 1999 and 2000. The case has bounced around the federal court system for more than a decade.

Officials at the EEOC could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon. A spokesperson declined to comment on the September ruling.

The pension system includes all general county workers except Board of Education employees, who participate in a different system. There are about 9,500 active employees and 6,000 retirees in the county system.

As a result of the litigation, the county revamped its pension contributions system, eliminating the age-based contribution rates, and fired and sued its longtime pension advisory company, Buck Consultants. That lawsuit was dismissed.

The county’s appeal to the Supreme Court was first reported by The Daily Record.

pwood@baltsun.com

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