Public Employees Forfeit Pensions Due to Misconduct
Two recent Pennsylvania cases illustrate the enormous consequences misconduct or criminal convictions have on public employees’ retirement benefits. Both employees lost their entire pensions, based on different Pennsylvania laws; one was a judge, the other a teacher.
The office of magisterial district judge, formerly justice of the peace, is an elected judicial office. Magisterial district judges have varied duties, including setting initial bail in criminal cases, hearing criminal preliminary hearings, issuing orders of protection and handling minor civil cases. Magisterial district judges can be removed from office as a sanction for misconduct. The Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline hears cases of judicial misconduct brought against judges of all levels of office.
A magisterial district judge brought before the Court of Judicial Discipline on charges of “pervasive and extreme” misbehavior toward his staff, some of which had sexual connotations, and much of which included his routinely using “crude, coarse, vulgar, offensive and improper language,” was removed from office after trial following the Court’s finding that he had “brought his judicial office into disrepute.” Some of the charges of misconduct against him were dismissed by the Court. First elected in the late 1980’s, the judge was re-elected several times and had a state pension.
After his removal by the Court, the state pension service notified the removed judge that his pension was forfeit due to his removal from office. The judge appealed to the State Employees Retirement Board, claiming that some misconduct charges against him had been dismissed, that he was removed on grounds that he brought his office into disrepute rather than on grounds of misconduct, and that he was not actually removed from several terms of office he previously served in his cycle of re-elections. Despite the fact that the judicial removal proceedings had concluded against him, the judge characterized his behavior toward his staff as “jovial repartee.” The retirement Board upheld the forfeiture, noting that both the Pennsylvania Constitution and the Pennsylvania statutes which regulate judges provide that judges forfeit their pensions if removed from their office. The Board noted that all elected officials renew their pension contracts upon re-election, and that the terms of the pension contract “place at risk” all previous service and previous pension earnings. The Board also noted that the judge was aware of the contents of the Judicial Code and the Pennsylvania Constitution.
In the case involving the teacher, he lost his pension after pleading guilty to corruption of a minor and indecent assault. Pennsylvania’s Public Employee Pension Forfeiture Act (PEPFA) provides for the loss of pension when a public official or employee is convicted of crimes involving the job or office “when public employment places him in a position to commit the crime.” The crimes involved are enumerated in the PEPFA and include crimes against students, and crimes involving theft, forgery, records tampering, bribery, false swearing and obstruction of law. Public officials and employees who can lose their pensions under the PEPFA include both state and local officials and employees.
In the case involving the teacher, he was already collecting his monthly pension payments at the time he entered the guilty plea, and was not aware that his conviction would trigger a pension forfeiture. When he received notice of the forfeiture, he tried to withdraw his guilty plea, but the presiding judge found that pension forfeiture was not a valid reason to withdraw a fully counseled guilty plea.
Strict Laws Result in Pension Forfeiture
Judges and all public officials and employees are subject to these strict laws that create the potential for pension forfeiture. Given the objections raised by the judge and teacher described above, it appears that some individuals with public pensions may not be fully aware of the grave risks of forfeiture they face.