Public Employees Forfeit Pensions

Two recent Pennsylvania cases illustrate the enormous consequences misconduct or criminal convictions have on public employees’ retirement benefits. Both employees in the two cases lost their entire pensions, based om 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, is suing 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 of fice.

A magisterial district judge was brought before the Court of Judicial Discipline on charges of “pervasive and extreme’ misbehavior toward his staff. Some of the judge’s behavior had sexual connotations, and much of it included his routinely using “crude, coarse, Vulgar, offensive and improper language.” The judge was removed from office after the 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 1980s, the judge had been reelected several times and had a state pension.

After the judge’s removal by the court, the state pension service notified the removed judge that his pension had been forfeited 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 had been removed on the ground that he had brought his office into disrepute rather than on the ground of misconduct, and that he had not actually been removed from several terms of office he had previously served in his cycle of reelections. 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 that 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 reelection 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.

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