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State, Consolidated Public Retirement Board v. Hunting

Supreme Court of West Virginia

October 19, 2017

STATE OF WEST VIRGINIA CONSOLIDATED PUBLIC RETIREMENT BOARD, Respondent Below, Petitioner
v.
OLLIE D. HUNTING, Petitioner Below, Respondent

         Lincoln County No. 12-AA-1

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         The petitioner herein and respondent below, State of West Virginia Consolidated Public Retirement Board ("Retirement Board"), by counsel J. Jeaneen Legato, appeals an order entered June 6, 2016, by the Circuit Court of Lincoln County. By that order, the circuit court ruled that a lump sum settlement payment by the Lincoln County Board of Education ("BOE") to the respondent herein and petitioner below, Ollie D. Hunting ("Mr. Hunting"), by counsel David R. Tyson, should be attributed to the year in which such settlement was paid, i.e., 2009-2010, for purposes of calculating Mr. Hunting's retirement benefits. On appeal to this Court, the Retirement Board contends that such settlement payment should be allocated to the years in which Mr. Hunting earned the wages represented by the settlement.

         Upon our review of the parties' arguments, the appendix record, and the pertinent authorities, we find that the circuit court erred by ordering that Mr. Hunting's settlement proceeds should be attributed solely to the year in which such settlement was paid to and received by Mr. Hunting because this calculation method results in a spike in Mr. Hunting's income for that year and is prohibited by the plain language of W.Va. Code § 18-7A-3(12) (2009) (Repl. Vol. 2012).[1] Accordingly, we reverse the circuit court's June 6, 2016, order and remand this case for reinstatement of the Retirement Board's March 1, 2012, order allocating Mr. Hunting's settlement payment to the years in which he earned the salary represented thereby. Because this case does not present a new or significant issue of law, and for the reasons set forth herein, we find this case satisfies the "limited circumstances" requirement of Rule 21(d) of the West Virginia Rules of Appellate Procedure and is proper for disposition as a memorandum decision.

         Mr. Hunting, a retired former employee of the BOE, has a long history of filing grievances against the BOE seeking wages he claims he did not receive due to alleged miscalculations that resulted in the underpayment of his wages. Several of these grievances, spanning employment years 1996-2001, were settled in 2009; the BOE agreed to pay Mr. Hunting a lump sum of $70, 000, [2] and Mr. Hunting agreed to dismiss certain other claims against the BOE. The circuit court entered an order memorializing this settlement and dismissing the subject claims on September 2, 2011.

         On July 1, 2011, Mr. Hunting retired from his position as Attendance Director and sought retirement benefits from the Teachers Retirement System. Mr. Hunting instituted the instant proceeding when he discovered that the aforementioned settlement, which he received during the 2009-2010 school year, had not been counted as income for that year as he and the BOE apparently had agreed;[3] instead, the Retirement Board attributed such earnings to the employment years in which they would have been earned but for the alleged underpayment of Mr. Hunting's wages. Following an administrative hearing, the Retirement Board issued a decision on March 1, 2012, confirming that such wages should be attributed to the years in which they would have been earned, rather than counting them as a lump sum payment of wages in the year in which the settlement was accomplished.

         By order entered June 6, 2016, the Circuit Court of Lincoln County reversed the Retirement Board and ruled that the wage portion of the parties' settlement should be calculated as wages for the year in which the settlement was paid, i.e., 2009-2010, based upon the parties' intent at the time they entered the settlement agreement, over which the same circuit court judge had presided. From this ruling, the Retirement Board appeals to this Court.

         The sole issue presented for our consideration and determination in this case is whether the circuit court erred in reversing the Retirement Board's ruling wherein it allocated the wage portion of Mr. Hunting's lump sum settlement payment to the years in which such wages would have been earned but for the alleged underpayment thereof. We previously have held that,

[o]n appeal of an administrative order from a circuit court, this Court is bound by the statutory standards contained in W.Va. Code § 29A-5-4(a) and reviews questions of law presented de novo; findings of fact by the administrative officer are accorded deference unless the reviewing court believes the findings to be clearly wrong.

Syl. pt. 1, Muscatell v. Cline, 196 W.Va. 588, 474 S.E.2d 518 (1996). Moreover, with specific regard to the case sub judice, "[i]n cases where the circuit court has amended the result before the administrative agency, this Court reviews the final order of the circuit court and the ultimate disposition by it of an administrative law case under an abuse of discretion standard and reviews questions of law de novo." Syl. pt. 2, id.

         Resolution of the instant matter turns upon the statutory language governing the calculation of an employee's salary for retirement purposes. Pursuant to W.Va. Code §§ 18-7A-26(c)(1-2) (2009) (Repl. Vol. 2012), [4] retirement benefits of a member of the State Teachers Retirement System are calculated as follows:

Upon establishment of eligibility for a retirement allowance, a member shall be granted an annuity which shall be the sum of the following, subject to reduction if necessary to comply with the maximum benefit provisions of Section 415 of the Internal Revenue Code and section twenty-eight-a [§ 18-7A-28a] of this article:
(1) Two percent of the member's average salary multiplied by his or her total service credit as a teacher. In this subdivision "average salary" means the average of the highest annual salaries received by the member during any five years contained within his or her last fifteen years of total service credit . . .;
(2) The actuarial equivalent of the voluntary deposits of the member in his or her individual account up to the time of his or her retirement, with regular interest.

See also W.Va. Code § 18-7A-3(5) (2009) (Repl. Vol. 2012) (defining "average final salary"). A retired employee's "average salary" is determined by reference to his "gross salary" for the years in question. W.Va. Code § 18-7A-3(12)[5] defines "[g]ross ...


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