For more than a decade, the Saint Louis University Legal Clinics have fought to provide some of Missouri’s most vulnerable citizens the money constitutionally allotted to them. Today those clients are one step closer to receiving millions of dollars previously withheld.
The Missouri Court of Appeals Western District ruled on Nov. 17 that a circuit judge miscalculated the amount the state owed recipients of Missouri’s Blind Pension Fund. As a result, the plaintiffs may be awarded more than $19 million in damages, interest and fees.
In 2004 Professor Emeritus Barb Gilchrist, then supervisor of the Elder Law Clinic, was approached by the Missouri Council of the Blind, who believed the Missouri Department of Social Services had not been paying enough to beneficiaries of the Blind Pension Fund.
An amendment to the Missouri Constitution made in the 1920s established the Blind Pension Fund. A special property tax is assessed to provide funds for the pension, and 75 percent of the increase in revenue every year is supposed to go to increase the monthly pension amount.
In addition to Gilchrist, working on the case throughout the years were Professor and Litigation Clinic Supervisor John Ammann, McDonnell Professor of Justice in American Society; Amy Sanders, who worked on the case as a student and then later as a member of the SLU LAW faculty; and Debbie Greider, a private practice attorney and adjunct faculty member at SLU LAW, as well as numerous law students.
Advocating on behalf of the Council, the SLU LAW team met with state officials and in 2005 the formula for correct calculations was made, ensuring the 75 percent of the increase in tax revenue would be taken and allocated to the pension immediately, not after other expenses were paid. However, back benefits were owed, so in 2006 a class action lawsuit was filed to remedy the decades-worth of incorrect payments.
In this current appeal, the issue at hand was not how far back in time to calculate the damages, but what amount should be used to begin the calculations. A previous court ruling acknowledged the underpayments began in 1992, but a five-year statute of limitations meant damages could only be calculated from February 2001.
Michael Alderson, Ph.D., finance professor at the John Cook School of Business, served as the Clinics’ expert witness on the accounting principle in question and provided invaluable help on the case from an early stage. The plaintiffs’ argument was that the new payment figure should be based on what the pension would have been in 2001 if it was calculated correctly all along.
The roller coaster activity of appeals and depositions through the years (this was the fourth time the case was before the Western District court) is common in litigation, so while there were times of discouragement, it was nothing new for the SLU LAW team. What struck Ammann was the dedication of his client. “The perseverance of the Missouri Council for the Blind on behalf of their clients is something we really admire,” he said.
And how does the victory feel after an incalculable number of hours working the case?
“I’m thrilled to death,” Ammann said. “Our clients and the legal team, in addition to working hard, we’ve prayed hard about it. Our faith and commitment to the Jesuit mission are the reasons we do these kinds of cases. We’re thankful to God for the strength and determination to see us through.”
Every semester for the last 10 years, law students were involved in ongoing litigation, with many traveling to Jefferson City for hearings and depositions. While they learned about the law of the case, they also learned about the adaptions the blind use to navigate society and how beneficial the pensions are to the quality of life for the blind.
Once the judgment is final, the time consuming claims process will begin. The Litigation Clinic will serve as the primary contact for requesting and filling out claims. Ammann anticipates students traveling across the state giving presentations and assisting with the necessary paperwork.
The state still has the option to appeal the ruling, though no decision has been made at the time of this publication.