By Mail Tribune
A jury awarded four former Medford city employees a total of close to $283,000 in damages Thursday following a three-day trial during which they claimed they were forced to pay for high-cost insurance when the city declined to extend their health insurance coverage after they retired early.
The ruling was far below the $500,000 each man was seeking in emotional distress. In addition, each man demanded $90,000 for economic damages they claimed to suffer after being forced to purchase pricey, high-risk insurance once they were taken off the city's policy.
Former City Attorney Ron Doyle, who resigned in 2005, was awarded $61,142 in financial damages; Robert Deuel was awarded $54,585; Charles Steinberg was awarded $37,208; and Ben Miller was awarded $29,866.
In addition, Doyle and Miller, a former Medford police officer, were awarded $50,000 each in damages for emotional distress.
The case, which has been tossed about in state and federal courtrooms for nearly six years, will continue in September. The employees have lodged an age discrimination case against the city, Doyle said.
Doyle seemed satisfied with Thursday's ruling.
"I would like to thank the jury," he said. "We'll see what happens in September."
Doyle refused to comment on the damages the men are seeking in the next case.
Medford City Manager Mike Dyal declined to comment on the jury's ruling when contacted by phone Thursday.
The employees' attorney, Steve Brischetto, argued in his opening statement that his clients deserve compensation from the city to cover the cost of their health insurance premiums in the intervening years between their early retirement and age 65.
Prior to the trial, Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Mark Schiveley found that the city had violated a statute requiring city employees be provided health insurance should they retire early to bridge the gap until they reach age 65. At age 65 they are eligible for Medicare.
The city issued a press release Thursday saying it plans to appeal Schiveley's decision. Should Schiveley's ruling stand, the city estimates the cost of supplying former employees with insurance until retirement would cost an additional $1,450 per month for each current employee.
The city's hired attorney, Robert Franz, argued Tuesday that even if the city erred by not honoring an obligation to extend the health coverage, there were no grounds for the damages sought by the former employees.
Franz tried to show that the insurance plans purchased by the men after they retired, including federally mandated COBRA continuation insurance and Oregon's Public Employees Retirement System insurance, were actually cheaper than what the city would have offered.
The complex case also has produced several rulings in different courts:
- On Sept. 4, 2009, Schiveley authored the opinion saying former city employees should have been covered by a bridge health insurance plan until they reach age 65.
- In February, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled the city should make health coverage available to workers who have taken early retirement but added the qualifying language of "insofar as and to the extent possible."
- In May, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that while state law requires cities to make health coverage available "to the extent possible," city employees have no constitutional right to health insurance coverage should they retire early.
Despite the federal ruling, the Oregon Supreme Court ruling stands on its own in addressing whether the city adhered to the state statute.
Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471; or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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