WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court said that it will consider whether a disgruntled retiree can challenge a court settlement of a class-action lawsuit against a Maryland-based union.
The dispute between Robert J. Devlin and the Transportation Communications International Union has delayed cost-of-living adjustments for 400 of the union’s pensioners that are in dispute.
Union attorneys claim that Devlin lost his right to intervene in the case when he passed on the opportunity to represent his fellow retirees in the original 1997 class-action lawsuit.
“The courts lose control how class-actions are conducted,” if they allow anyone to challenge a class-action settlement, said William F. Hanrahan, an attorney for the union.
But Devlin, a New Jersey resident, said he was only forced to decline the position for financial reasons. He argues that the court has never questioned his ability to represent the retirees, and as such, he should be able to intervene in the settlement, which he finds inadequate.
“The court recognized that I would be a logical representative of the retired employees and they’ve always dealt with me,” Devlin said Tuesday. “There was no question that I represented 400 of the retired employees.”
The case stems from a lawsuit against retirees brought by trustees of the union’s retirement plan, who were seeking to reduce the cost-of-living adjustments for all plan members.
The union, which has headquarters in Rockville, represents clerical employees of railroads across the nation. In 1991, the trustees amended the pension plan to allow for an increase in pensions every three years to match the rate of inflation, up to a maximum of 10 percent.
But a new trustee board determined that the increase was based on flawed financial projections and eliminated the adjustment in 1993 for everyone retired after that date. Benefits were to continue for those already receiving the adjustments, such as Devlin.
The U.S. District Court for Maryland first ruled that the union could not refuse the adjustment to those already receiving it, like Devlin. But the court reversed itself in 1997, saying the trustees could deny increases to all its employees. The union took advantage of the reversal, going to court to secure the right to withhold the raises.
At that point, Devlin was approached about representing the class of retirees in the lawsuit — he had been an international vice president of the union from 1966 to 1983, and president of the Retired Employees Protective Association, a group of retirees seeking to preserve the adjustment. But he declined because REPA could not afford to pay for this travel between New Jersey and Baltimore.
“We explained to Judge (J. Frederick) Motz that this was impossible, and he agreed,” Devlin said. “We backed out of Baltimore because we couldn’t afford it, plain and simple.”
Another representative took his place, and a settlement was reached. It replaced the old cost-of-living adjustment with two one-time increases, one in 1999 and another in 2002, Hanrahan said.
The settlement includes an agreement that the cost-of-living adjustments will not be granted until all appeals are settled, including any Supreme Court hearing, said Thomas C. Goldstein, who will represent Devlin before the high court.
Since the adjustment formula was first changed back in 1997, about 100 of the 400 original retirees who lost the old adjustments have died, Devlin said.
In the meantime, Hanrahan said Devlin has been almost a “professional litigant,” citing the retiree’s numerous efforts to bring action against the union in New York.
“He’s made a hobby since his retirement of suing the union over various kinds of things,” Hanrahan said.
Devlin has repeatedly filed actions in the Southern District of New York against the union, but was denied on the grounds that Maryland was the appropriate forum. He filed there again after Motz denied his motion to intervene after the settlement was approved.
In a Nov. 26 memorandum, Motz called Devlin’s repeated New York filings “an attack upon my approval of the settlement agreement,” as well as an “attempt to circumvent the jurisdiction of not only this court but also of the 4th Circuit.”
Devlin, however, contends that New York is an appropriate venue because of its proximity to his home.
“I don’t want to sound too critical of the Maryland court, but it just was not a convenient place for him to litigate this,” said Arthur M. Wisehart, who has represented Devlin for the past five years.
The high court agreed Monday to take up the case and Hanrahan said he expects a hearing in March.