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Even though the Department of Corrections erroneously made a number of prison workers pay more into their retirement accounts than was necessary, the Commonwealth Court has ruled that the employees cannot have their money reimbursed. The task of trying to compute how much each employee was owed would be almost an impossible mission, Judge Joseph F. McCloskey said for the court, and would have disastrous effects for the State Employes’ Retirement System. Judges Jim Flaherty and Dan Pellegrini joined McCloskey in his opinion. The State Employes’ Retirement Code says a refund should only be granted when it is practical to do so. The claimant in Brooks v. State Employes’ Retirement Board, Douglas Brooks, joined SERS in 1971 when he began working at the State Correctional Institute in Rockview, Pa. The facility’s employees worked rotating shifts of six days on duty and two off duty. They were required to work the holidays that fell within their shifts. As part of a collective bargaining agreement between the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the DOC, employees at Rockview and seven other Pennsylvania correctional facilities were automatically paid overtime for working on holidays, instead of giving them the opportunity to use compensatory leave. A 1993 audit revealed that at eight correctional facilities, including Rockview, DOC had been incorrectly coding that buyout of holiday compensatory time for 20 years. “As a result of this miscoding, the earnings statements that DOC sent to SERS were overstated,” McCloskey said, so certain DOC employees, including Brooks, had paid more into SERS than they should have. Any refund Brooks would have received would lower his retirement benefit and could result in his paying higher taxes. DOC was ordered to fix the mistake. AFSCME challenged the correction, arguing that it unfairly reduced its members’ retirement covered earnings. Brooks requested reimbursement of the overpaid amount in 1997. SERS denied the request. Brooks appealed to the State Employes’ Retirement Board. The hearing examiner recommended that the board grant Brooks’ request and add interest for the period of time that DOC miscoded the buyout. However, the board ultimately denied Brooks’ claim, citing the plain language of Section 5954(b) of the code, which sets limits on how SERS can adjust payment errors. The section states that no matter whether an error in records has been caused intentionally or unintentionally, “the board shall correct the error and so far as practicable shall adjust the payments which may be made.” Because Brooks’ request was not practical, the board said Section 5954 barred it from being granted. On appeal to the Commonwealth Court, Brooks, acting pro se, argued that Section 5954 actually supported his award, contrary to what the board said. But McCloskey said the court agreed with the board. “Here, the record shows that neither [Brooks] nor SERS presented evidence regarding the exact period of time that the miscoded payments were made, nor the exact amount of funds that were erroneously withheld from [Brooks'] earnings and mistakenly classified as part of his retirement contribution,” McCloskey said. “Moreover, the evidence of record demonstrates that [Brooks] was only one of many employees, both active and now retired, whose retirement contributions were affected by DOC’s miscoding error. Furthermore, the record shows that to grant [Brooks'] request for a refund would necessitate the recalculation of retirement contributions for a great number of employees and would effectively bring SERS ‘to its knees.’” In a footnote, McCloskey noted as an aside that Brooks would receive all of the erroneous contributions plus interest when he retires.

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