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Opinion

Home court?

SoVaNow.com / July 05, 2013
While they’ve been celebrating Run The Little Guy Out Of Business Month over at the new gas station across from Wal-Mart, in a Halifax courtroom on Monday the news was similarly bleak for retirees of Halifax County Public Schools. Upset with the School Board’s decision to cancel their promised retirement benefits, 105 former teachers and staff sued their former employer to get LORP — short for Local Option Retirement Plan — reinstated. It didn’t go well.

What happened? The judge hearing the case, retired Circuit Judge Charles Strauss of Chatham, more or less punted. He tossed the suit on procedural grounds, ruling that the retirees could not seek redress as a group using an argument for declaratory judgment that their attorneys tested out Monday. As a practical matter, this makes it almost impossible for the LORP castoffs to get a clean and timely victory unless they can overturn Strauss’ decision on appeal. It’s every man and woman for oneself, which makes the path ahead all the more tortuous, expensive and uncertain.

Strauss didn’t weigh in on the merits of either side’s claims — which some retirees took as encouragement, since the judge did suggest that if the case is to move forward, it should be fought on breach-of-contract grounds. Are the plaintiffs seeing in this comment what they want to see? Look, I’m no lawyer. (Happy about it, too!) But I don’t think a judge setting out the parameters of a hypothetical legal action in a particular way tells us a whole lot about what he thinks about the substance of the complaint. All that really happened Monday was the LORP plaintiffs were stuck with a bunch of tough choices on what they should do from here. You be the judge.

Here’s what I think: when Charles Dickens famously wrote “the law is an ass” (credit for recalling that line goes to The Prizery’s production of “Oliver!”), he could have been talking about the proclivity of the courts to fail at delivering relief to even severely wronged parties. You hear a lot of talk about runaway juries and outrageous damage awards, but outside a few jurisdictions, the truth is it’s awfully hard to win big-time in court. (Especially once the appeals process has run its course). I would venture to add that Virginia has an especially constipated legal system in terms of dealing with claimants such as the LORP plaintiffs. The system is stacked in favor of the system. And maybe that’s as it should be. Or maybe my take on the matter is completely wrong and actual lawyers out there in Readerland can correct my misimpression. But I don’t think so.

As a matter of policy, I think the School Board’s decision to cancel LORP was a mistake. I agree with those who say the trustees and Superintendent of Schools Merle Herndon never adequately addressed the argument that LORP was a money-saver, not a cost burden, over the long haul. (The reason why this might be is simple: the program encouraged senior staff to retire and paved the way for younger and cheaper hires to take their place. Whether this is sound practice on educational grounds is another matter).

The real shame here, however, has nothing to do with operational considerations. The cancellation of LORP was an ethical and moral failure. By pulling the rug out from under its former employees, promising benefits if only they would depart the system — prematurely, no doubt, for some who might have been on the fence about whether to retire or not — and then reneging, the trustees violated a trust that I suspect they will want to get back someday. True, retirees were informed that LORP’s provisions were year-to-year, contingent on available funding. But some employees retired in the spring of 2012 fully expecting — with good reason — to receive program benefits for at least a year or two. It would be great if the School Board would acknowledge that a wrong has been done to these folks. It would be even better if the trustees could figure out an acceptable way to make them whole.

Because I’m having a hard time believing that the courts are going to step in to do the trustees’ job for them.

***

Ethical and moral failures — not really something you have to look around very hard to find nowadays, eh? When details first started to trickle out about Gov. Bob McDonnell’s sketchy relationship with a top donor, Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams, I thought the news was a big-time embarrassment for the governor, but that was all. Now I’m starting to wonder. Could Virginia have a Rod Blagojevich situation on its hands, with a governor in genuine jeopardy of being charged with a crime?

A Democratic state senator, Chapman Petersen of Fairfax, this week became the first major elected official in Virginia to call for the governor’s resignation. One can dismiss Petersen’s statement as so much political grandstanding, but it’s not so easy to dismiss the fact the FBI and Virginia State Police are investigating the First Family’s penchant for gift-taking and the revelations are continuing to drip-drip-drip out. This week it’s the news that the governor and family traveled to the 2011 Final Four basketball tournament in Houston on Williams’ dime. Before that, we learned that McDonnell possesses a $6,500 Rolex watch, another gift from Williams. The governor’s explanation that it’s all simply a matter of friends just being friends falls flat. When’s the last time one of your friends gave you a $6,500 watch?

There are actual disclosure laws that McDonnell appears to have violated, so we’ll see how the authorities deal with that. Until then, one is left to merely wonder how a political figure with a reasonably bright future and a decent (if overrated) record in the present could be so smashingly successful in giving it all away. Has anyone ever been more generous towards his opposition than Bob McDonnell?



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