By Zachary Hansen, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
(CNT) City News And Talk #atlanta-ga
A Decatur firefighter who severely hurt her back while on the job claims that Decatur changed its pension policy to defraud her out of thousands of dollars each month.
In a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday, Lt. Bridgit Christensen accused the city and two of its leaders of misleading her into receiving only about 11.5% of her pension after she retired due to disability.
Law firm Buckley Beal, LLP, which represents Christensen, claims that Decatur’s leadership “quietly amended” the pension plan for all city employees last year, reducing the benefit for disabled pensioners based on how many years they had before their normal retirement, according to a news release. The law firm claims that full disability pension payments are only available to those who suffered a “catastrophic” injury.
City Administrator Andrea Arnold is named in the lawsuit. In response, Arnold provided a statement that reads: “The City understands that Lt. Christensen is disappointed with the changes to the City’s retirement plan that were properly adopted by the City Commission and applied equally to eligible retirees after its effective date. However, the City denies Lt. Christensen’s claims and intends to vigorously defend itself in court.”
Christensen, who worked for the city as a firefighter since 2000, suffered a spinal injury while responding to a call in a firetruck. The incident’s specifics were not mentioned in the lawsuit, but the injury required spinal fusion surgery in 2016. In May 2019, an orthopedic surgeon determined that she should not return to her job as a firefighter due to her injury, leading to her retirement the following month.
The law firm said that her pension plan with Decatur entitled her to receive at least $3,500 per month, since she became disabled on the job. In June 2019, the city reduced her benefit to roughly $400 a month, according to the lawsuit.
That came as a result of the city’s pension plan being amended on June 3, 2019. The release claims that Arnold told Christensen that the pension plan was never meant to be a disability plan and “that is what Worker’s Compensation is for.”
The lawsuit claims that the city’s legal justification for amending the pension plan was fabricated since the city told the Pension Board and the city’s commissioners that it had to be changed because it didn’t comply with IRS rules and the Georgia Constitution.
Instead, the law firm argues that the 2019 amendment is unconstitutional since it altered the benefit formulas and directly reduced benefit payouts. In addition, the lawsuit claims the city breached its contract with Christensen, since government pension plans are considered contracts between public employers and their employees in Georgia. The lawsuit also alleges that the ordeal violated the Fourteenth Amendment.
“Firefighters like our client who become permanently disabled after responding to a call should get exactly what the City promised them — full retirement benefits,” Attorney Andrew Tate said in the release. “Our client paid into her pension for nearly twenty years and the City stripped it from her overnight with no legal justification.”
Connie Jacobs-Walton, who was the city’s director of human resources until earlier this year, is also a defendant because she’s accused of misleading Christensen into requesting a retirement date after the amendment went into effect, the release said.
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia and requests a jury trial. The law firm is requesting that Christensen receive her original pension payments along with compensatory and punitive damages against all three defendants.