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Lawsuit could return pension funds to public employees

A class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday may put money back into the pockets of USF faculty and staff members – the 3 percent of their salary they would have had to put toward their own pension due to a new statute passed by the Legislature.

The Florida Education Association (FEA) has filed a lawsuit against Gov. Rick Scott and other Florida legislators, calling into question the constitutionality of Senate Bill 2100.

The decision to require 3 percent of a public employees’ take-home salary to be contributed to the Florida Retirement System (FRS), which passed the Florida Legislature, was questioned on the grounds of Florida Statute 121, which states that FRS members rights “are of a contractual nature, entered to between the member and the state, and such rights shall be legally enforceable as valid contract rights and shall not be abridged in any way,” according to the lawsuit brief.

The FEA represents K-12 and university educators and faculty, and is comprised of local affiliates. Among them is the United Faculty of Florida’s (UFF) USF chapter, which will help fund the legal fees incurred by the case.

USF’s chapter spokesman for UFF, Gregory McColm, said a high-profile case like this could cost “millions,” which would require more support for faculty unions across the state.

As the lawsuit progresses, McColm said the USF chapter of UFF plans to recruit more members to gain numerical strength and financial power to help FEA fight the case.

According to a FEA press release, prosecuting attorney Ron Meyer has called on the court to set aside the 3 percent collected from faculty salaries until the case is resolved. The motion will be heard in court June 30.

McColm said it might take a while before the case is heard, but new legislative seasons could create more challenges.

“It’s likely to take a while for the court to get to it,” he said. “If the court does overturn the law, that would mean that we would hopefully return to the system we have and our contributions that we make involuntarily would be returned to us.”

Jenn Meale, communications director for the Office of Attorney General Pam Bondi, said Bondi’s office is reviewing the lawsuit, but made no comment.

The Faculty Advisory Council met Wednesday morning with USF Provost Ralph Wilcox to discuss the lawsuit.

USF President Judy Genshaft and Wilcox both declined to comment on the lawsuit, but Wilcox said the University will closely monitor its progress.

McColm said he hopes this case sends a message to the Florida Legislature, especially since future legislative seasons may pose new challenges for unions due to redistricting that could favor incumbents who support the bill.

“The legislative government has targeted those that seem weak,” he said. “Public employees have been perceived as vulnerable. If we band together, then we can tell the bullies in Tallahassee to find someone else to pick on.”