SILVER LAKE — The village’s clerk-treasurer said the municipality has likely saved anywhere from $500,000 to $700,000 after an appeals court ruled in the village’s favor in a case where a retired police chief and two retired lieutenants sought health and life insurance benefits from the village.
The Ninth District Court of Appeals on Aug. 7 upheld Summit County Common Pleas Court Judge Tom Teodosio’s 2017 ruling that the village did not need to pay health and life insurance benefits to former police chief Gary E. DeMoss, and to former police lieutenants Carl Harrison and Mark D. Kennemuth. DeMoss retired in 2010, while Harrison stepped down in 2013 and Kennemuth in 2016.
The three-member appeals court panel unanimously agreed with Teodosio’s ruling.
Village Clerk-Treasurer Sean Housley said he projected the village would have owed several hundreds of thousands of dollars to the plaintiffs if it had lost the case.
"If we had lost that, that would have been devastating to our finances," noted Mayor Bernie Hovey. "I’m very happy with the ruling, and I think it was the right and just one."
A message left for the plaintiffs’ attorney, Larry D. Shenise, was not returned by press time. His clients can appeal the decision to the Ohio Supreme Court.
Village Solicitor Robert Heydorn said he had not heard whether that was going to happen. Hovey said the plaintiffs could also ask the appeals court to reconsider, but said since the decision was unanimous, it’s "highly doubtful" that the court would look at it again.
"I’m gratified that the courts have sustained the position that the village has taken all along," said Heydorn.
Heydorn noted that health insurance benefits for police officers has been handled by a state system for decades and added village leaders believe a municipality "should not be required to supplement [those benefits] if it chooses not to."
At issue was an ordinance that was once in place giving employees and retirees certain health care rights after 15 years of employment. That 1972 ordinance was repealed in 1995.
Before it was repealed, each of the plaintiffs had been employed with the village for more than 15 years. Shenise previously told the Falls News that he argued that his clients’ 15-plus years of service "produced a vested right to the benefits."
However, Heydorn said the village argued the adoption of the 1995 ordinance removed any requirement to provide life and health insurance benefits to retirees.
The Ninth District Court of Appeals agreed, noting the 1972 ordinance "provided that the benefits provided … would be ‘continued for those employees retiring hereafter.’
"Giving that language its most natural reading, we conclude that ‘retiring’ is one of the eligibility preconditions under [the 1972 ordinance]," the appeals court ruling continued. "In this case, none of the employees ‘retired’ while the 1972 ordinance was in effect ... the trial court correctly concluded that they did not acquire a vested right to post-retirement health care and life insurance benefits…"
The court battle has unfolded for the past eight years. The lawsuit was first filed in Summit County Common Pleas Court in June 2011. A magistrate ruled in the village’s favor in April 2014, and then Teodosio adopted the magistrate’s decision in April 2015. The plaintiffs appealed to the Ninth District of Appeals in May 2015, and that court sent the case back to the county court in June 2016 with instructions to analyze whether the village intended for the 1995 ordinance to be applied retroactively.
In February 2017, Teodosio determined that the 1995 ordinance was not intended to be applied retroactively and ruled in the village’s favor. The plaintiffs then appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals.
Reporter Phil Keren can be reached at 330-541-9421, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @keren_phil.