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Idaho Retired Firefighters Association v. Public Employee Retirement Board

Supreme Court of Idaho

June 13, 2019


          Appeal from the Industrial Commission of the State of Idaho. Chairman Thomas E. Limbaugh, presiding.

         The decision of the Industrial Commission is vacated for lack of jurisdiction.

          Herzfeld & Piotrowski, PLLC, Boise, for appellant. James Piotrowski argued.

          Idaho Attorney General's office, Boise, for respondent. Steven L. Olsen argued.

          STEGNER, Justice.

         This case involves a dispute over how the Idaho Public Employee Retirement Board (the Board) calculates the annual cost of living adjustment (COLA) for retirees who are participants in the Firemen's Retirement Fund (FRF). The Idaho Industrial Commission (the Commission) held that the definition of paid firefighter includes part-time[1] firefighters. The effect of the Commission's decision results in a smaller annual COLA for retired firefighters. On appeal, the Idaho Retired Firefighters Association (the Association), and Sharon Koelling and John Anderson (Koelling and Anderson will be collectively referred to as the "Individual Claimants"), allege that the Board's inclusion of part-time firefighters violates statutory and constitutional provisions. The Association and the Individual Claimants seek a ruling from this Court reversing the Commission's decision. In its place, they seek a ruling that would exclude part-time firefighters from the Board's annual COLA calculations, the effect of which would be an increase in the annual COLA applicable to retired firefighters. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we vacate the Commission's decision because we conclude it lacked the necessary jurisdiction to decide the question presented to it.


         A. The FRF system and the annual COLA calculations.

         In 1945, the Idaho Legislature created the FRF to provide pension and disability benefits to Idaho firefighters. The Legislature codified the FRF in Title 72, Chapter 14. From 1945 until 1980, the State Insurance Fund administered the FRF.

         In 1976, the Legislature passed Idaho Code section 72-1432B (now Idaho Code section 72-1471) to provide for an annual COLA for FRF beneficiaries. Idaho Code section 72-1471 states that the annual COLA is to be "calculated on the percentage increase or decrease in the average paid firefighter's salary or wage." (Italics added.)

         Also during the 1976 Session, the Legislature amended the definition of "paid firefighter." 1976 Idaho Sess. Laws 922. The definition was changed to the following:

The words "paid fireman" are synonymous with "paid firefighter," and mean any individual, male or female, excluding office secretaries employed after July 1, 1967, who is on the payroll of any city or fire district in the state of Idaho prior to October 1, 1980, and who devotes his or her principal time of employment to the care, operation, maintenance or the requirements of a regularly constituted fire department of such city or fire district in the state of Idaho.

Id. This definition has not changed since 1980. 1980 Idaho Sess. Laws 82 (codified at I.C. § 72-1403(A)).

         In 1979, the Legislature transferred all of the assets and administration of the FRF to the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho (PERSI), which is administered by the Board. I.C. § 59-1305 ("The board shall have the power and duty . . . of managing the system."). The transfer was effective October 1, 1980. The Legislature adopted Idaho Code sections 59-1351 to 59-1392 (the legislation governing the FRF now extends to Idaho Code section 59-1399) to implement the transfer of the administration of the FRF to the Board. In 1984, the Legislature amended the definition of "paid fireman" in section 59-1391(f) to match much of the definition in section 72-1403(A) but omitted any kind of date restriction and the clarification that "paid fireman" was synonymous with firefighter. 1984 Idaho Sess. Laws 319. The Board has set the FRF's annual COLA since 1980.

         The Association is a nonprofit entity, which was formed to monitor pension and retirement benefits for retired firefighters in Idaho. The Association meets with the Board regularly, tracks the annual COLA, and advocates (and now litigates) on behalf of its members.

         In the fall of 2009, at the annual meeting of the Board and the Association, the Association's representative voiced concerns about the hiring of more reserve or part-time firefighters by the Lewiston Fire Department. The Association's concern was that inclusion of these reserve firefighters in the annual COLA calculation would reduce the calculation to the detriment of the Association's members. Based on the Association's concerns, PERSI's executive director, ordered an audit of the City of Lewiston's contributions to PERSI as it related to the FRF. The PERSI audit determined that there were inaccuracies in Lewiston's monthly reports. As a result, the Board made corrections based on its determination that Lewiston had not been correctly reporting its contributions to PERSI. ...

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