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Barringer v. State Employees' Retirement Board

December 8, 2009

JOHN D. BARRINGER, PETITIONER
v.
STATE EMPLOYEES' RETIREMENT BOARD, RESPONDENT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Simpson

Argued: November 10, 2009

BEFORE: HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge, HONORABLE JOHNNY J. BUTLER, Judge, HONORABLE KEITH B. QUIGLEY, Senior Judge.

OPINION

We are asked whether the State Employees' Retirement Board (Retirement Board) committed legal error by denying John D. Barringer's (Claimant) request for credit toward age 50 superannuation retirement benefits for the period of September, 2000 through August 4, 2006. During this time, the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole (Parole Board) employed Claimant as a parole warrant officer; however, during this time the warrant officer position was not included within the parole agent classification series. Pursuant to the State Employees' Retirement Code (Retirement Code),*fn1 only those positions classified as parole agents were deemed "enforcement officers" for purposes of age 50 superannuation retirement benefits. Upon review, we discern no error in the Retirement Board's order denying Claimant's request.

The Parole Board hired Claimant on June 4, 1990 as a parole agent. Claimant worked in this capacity until September, 2000, when he voluntarily transferred to the position of warrant officer. Between September, 2002 and January, 2006, Claimant was on a military leave of absence. Claimant continued to work as a warrant officer upon his return to work. In August, 2006, the Governor's Executive Board prospectively reclassified the warrant officer position to that of a parole agent 2. Claimant is therefore eligible for credit toward age 50 superannuation retirement benefits for the period of June 4, 1990 to September, 2000 (service as parole agent), and from August 5, 2006 forward (period of reclassification of warrant officer position). The period at issue here extends from September, 2000 to August 4, 2006, before the effective date of the reclassification of the warrant officer position.

In 2001, Claimant requested the State Employees' Retirement System (SERS) to apply his service credits as a warrant officer to his eligibility points for age 50 superannuation retirement benefits. After an unexplained delay, SERS denied Claimant's request in July, 2006. Claimant thereafter sought review by the SERS' Appeals Committee, which denied Claimant's request.

On further administrative appeal, the Retirement Board's hearing examiner recommended denial of Claimant's request on the basis the Retirement Code provides a definition of "enforcement officer," below, for age 50 superannuation purposes. The term "enforcement officer" is dependent on the Executive Board's classification series for parole agents. Since the Executive Board did not classify the warrant officer position within the parole agent series, the hearing examiner concluded SERS could not apply Claimant's service as warrant officer toward age 50 superannuation retirement benefits. The Retirement Board subsequently denied Claimant's exceptions and adopted the hearing examiner's recommendation as modified.*fn2

In this appeal, Claimant asserts legal error in the Retirement Board's order where the Board: failed to liberally construe the Retirement Code; failed to recognize its previous decision granting age 50 superannuation retirement benefits to parole supervisors; and, failed to recognize that Claimant performed substantially the same duties during his tenure with the Parole Board regardless of his job classification.*fn3

At the outset, we note that the State Employees' Retirement System is a creature of statute. As such, its members enjoy only those rights created by the Retirement Code and none beyond it. Burris v. State Employes' Ret. Bd., 745 A.2d 704 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2000); Bittenbender v. State Employees' Ret. Bd., 622 A.2d 403 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1992). The retirement system creates a contract between the Commonwealth and its employees and, contracts should be liberally construed to effectuate the parties' intentions. Bowers v. State Employes' Ret. Bd., 371 A.2d 1040 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1977). Liberal construction of the Retirement Code does not, however, permit the Retirement Board to circumvent the express language of the Code. Marinucci v. State Employees' Ret. Sys., 863 A.2d 43 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2004). The Retirement Board lacks authority to grant equitable relief in conflict with the statutory mandates of the Retirement Code, and this Court may not revise the Code to achieve equitable results. Id.

This appeal involves the proper application of Section 5102 of the Retirement Code, 71 Pa. C.S. §5102, relating to definitions. Relevantly, Section 5102 provides the following definition of "superannuation age":

Superannuation age. Any age upon accrual of 35 eligibility points or age 60, except for a member of the General Assembly, an enforcement officer, a correction officer, a psychiatric security aide, a Delaware River Port Authority policeman or an officer of the Pennsylvania State Police, age 50.. (Emphasis added).

In turn, "enforcement officer" is pertinently defined as:

(3) Parole agents, classified as such by the Executive Board and employed ...


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