STAMFORD – A trial date is set for a 15-month-old lawsuit challenging a decision that allows two chiefs in the fire department to collect their salaries and pensions at the same time.
Another case questions whether the city has say over a pension board vote that granted benefits to a firefighter who was terminated while in treatment at a substance abuse recovery center.
The suit filed by the Stamford Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 786 against the Firefighters Pension Trust Fund, the Pension Board, the city, Fire Chief Trevor Roach, and Assistant Chief Miguel Robles is scheduled for trial on Dec. 12, according to the Connecticut Judicial Branch website.
The union charges that the Pension Board and the city are improperly allowing Roach, whose salary is $176,000, and Robles, who earns $158,000, to be collecting their pay and their pensions at the same time.
The union alleges that the firefighters’ Pension Plan doesn’t allow so-called “in service” pensions; and that some of the benefits Roach and Robles are collecting were calculated at the higher pay rates of their top posts, which the suit says are not union positions and should not be counted.
Beyond the lawsuit, a 23-year firefighter and U.S. Army veteran, fired by Roach two months ago, just received notice that his family will receive medical insurance even though the Pension Board voted to grant him disability retirement benefits on Feb. 14.
Michael Mardis, who receives his disability benefits from the U.S. Veterans Administration and wanted the firefighters union benefits for his wife and children, said Monday he doesn’t know why the city apparently held back on executing the Pension Board’s decision.
“At one point the person who manages retirement benefits for the city told us we would not get the benefits,” Mardis said.
That was shortly after he was terminated in January, he said.
“Then the union filed a grievance and the city sent a letter saying the benefits were extended to the end of February. Then it was to the end of March while they figured out what they were doing,” Mardis said. “Then late last week we got a letter saying we have benefits.”
Mardis, 52, considered disabled by the V.A. because of post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his Army service, was in a Maryland treatment facility that specializes in treating first responders for trauma and substance abuse when he learned he’d been fired.
Mardis has said he was drinking so much at night to fall asleep that he would still be drunk when he went to work in the morning. He agrees with his termination and has spoken out about his experience because he thinks department administrators should do more to help firefighters cope with the difficult situations they encounter in responding to fires and accidents and other emergencies.
Mardis said he thought that, when the Fire Pension Board voted to grant him disability retirement benefits Feb. 14, that was the end of it, since the board determines who gets benefits.
His wife, Andrea Mardis, said the note she got from the city Human Resources Department last week said that because of the board decision, “the city agrees to provide retiree insurance as set forth in the collective bargaining agreement, effective Feb. 1.”
Mardis said he doesn’t know why the benefits were in question if the board voted to grant them and they are set forth in the union contract, or why the coverage dates to Feb. 1, before the pension board’s Feb. 14 ruling.
“I don’t understand what happened,” he said. “Nobody gave me a reason.”
Legal Affairs Director Tom Cassone said Monday that the city disagrees with the characterization that Mardis’s benefits were delayed, but declined to comment at this time.
The city Charter states that the Fire Pension Board trustees, “by a majority vote, may retire any member of the fire department who, in the actual performance of duty and without personal fault or misconduct, shall have become permanently disabled,” and that member shall be entitled to receive compensation from the pension fund.
The union lawsuit, slated for a status conference April 11 in state Superior Court in Stamford, likely will push the court to clarify the roles and authority of the city, the union contract, the Fire Pension Board, and the pension plan rules in granting benefits.
The suit states that, in April 2020, when Roach was chief and Robles was assistant chief, they applied to the Fire Pension Board for retirement benefits. “At the time, their intent to continue working for the fire department was not clear to the Pension Board,” the suit states.
The board then voted to award Roach and Robles their pension benefits using calculations based on not only their years in the union but also on the years they were not in the union because of their promotions to the top posts.
Right after they were awarded their pensions, Roach and Robles signed new employment contracts with the city, maintaining their same top positions. Their contracts include a commitment from the city that they will continue to receive their pension payments while they are working as chief and assistant chief.
In June 2020, according to the lawsuit, a lawyer for the pension board issued an opinion saying the board could not grant Roach and Robles their benefits unless the pension plan authorized “in service” pensions.
The suit says the union objected to the pension awards, saying they should be suspended until Roach and Robles retire. The union said the eventual benefits should not include credit for the time Roach and Robles were not union members.
But in September 2021 the Fire Pension Board voted 3-2 to continue the pension benefits for Roach and Robles as is, the suit states. The pension trust fund is governed by a board made up of two members appointed by the mayor; two appointed by the union; and an independent member who is selected by the other two and serves as chairman.
The union wants the Fire Pension Board to repay the pension fund the benefits it says were improperly paid to the chiefs.
The pension conflicts are the latest in a series that include the July settlement of a lawsuit in which the city paid $250,000 to four firefighters who charged that they were improperly passed over when officials used their own criteria instead of test scores to decide promotions.
In August, the International Association of Fire Fighters voted during its annual convention in Canada to censure Roach and Robles on behalf of Local 786. The union cited the chiefs for improper handling of promotions; collecting pensions and salaries simultaneously; collecting pensions at higher rates than they’re due; and firing the former union president for questioning their pensions.