CINCINNATI — Two retired Hamilton County teachers filed a federal lawsuit on Thursday against the Ohio State Teacher’s Retirement System Board, accusing trustees of unlawfully ending cost of living allowances.
The two retired teachers are asking U.S. District Court Chief Judge Susan Dlott to certify their case as a class-action lawsuit, which would open it up to 145,000 retired teachers in Ohio.
"Our clients worked for decades, for very modest compensation, doing one of the most important jobs in the world – educating our children," said Stephen Imm, one of the lawyers representing the teachers. "Over the course of those decades, they were repeatedly promised that, in their retirement years, they would receive annual cost of living adjustments that would at least allow them to keep pace with inflation."
Dean Dennis, who taught in Cincinnati Public Schools for 35 years before retiring in 2008, and Robert Buerkle -- who taught in Cincinnati Public Schools, Butler Vocational School, Miami University and Cincinnati State for 35 years before retiring in 2003 -- filed the suit.
They accuse the STRS trustees of unlawfully voting to suspend cost of living allowances for retired teachers in April 2017 to shore up the $80 billion fund. An STRS spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment.
One of the largest pension funds in the United States, it covers 494,000 active, inactive and retired Ohio teachers, according to the lawsuit.
“Teachers and retirees must band together like those in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona have recently done,” Buerkle told the Dayton Daily News in 2018. “If they need more funding sources to provide our retirement benefits then they need to increase employer contributions to do so, not steal our earned, paid for and promised COLA.”
Buerkle was one of dozens of retired teachers who traveled to Columbus last April to protest the loss of retirement benefits.
"We're not going to tolerate anything they do with our money, and we're going to protest and keep protesting until they give us that money back,” retired Cincinnati Public Schools teacher Roger Peebles told WCPO in April 2018.
Ohio public school teachers are required to contribute a portion of their earnings to the pension system.
The lawsuit accuses STRS trustees of violating due process, impairment of contract, unconstitutional taking, breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty and unjust enrichment.
"The perceived financial issues that the board cited as the justification for its action could have been more than adequately addressed in a variety of ways that would not have dealt such a devastating blow to our retired teachers," Imm said. "Instead, it chose to put 100 percent of the burden on the people who were most vulnerable, and who could least afford it. We do not believe this was necessary, just, or legal."
Two law firms in this case, Minnillo & Jenkins Co., and Goldenberg Schneider, also represented Cincinnati retirees in their 2011 lawsuit against the city over pension benefits that resulted in a historic consent decree.