Nicholas Casson was a firefighter for the City of Santa Ana for 27 years. He took a service retirement in 2012 and immediately began receiving pension payments through California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) of approximately $7,200 per month.
He immediately started a second career with the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) where he was eligible for a pension under respondent Orange County Employees Retirement System (OCERS). Importantly, he did not elect reciprocity between the two pensions, which would have allowed him to import his years of service under CalPERS to the OCERS pension. He started as a first-year firefighter for purposes of the OCERS pension and immediately began collecting pension payments from CalPERS.
Five years into the new job, he suffered an on-the-job injury that permanently disabled him. He applied for and received a disability pension from OCERS, which, normally, would have paid out 50 percent of his salary for the remainder of his life.
However, because he was receiving a CalPERS retirement, OCERS imposed a “disability offset” pursuant to Government Code section 31838.5, which is the statute at the center of this appeal. This resulted in a monthly benefit reduction from $4,222.81 to $1,123.87.
After exhausting his administrative remedies, Casson filed a petition for a writ of mandate in the trial court. The court denied the petition, finding that the plain language of section 31838.5 required a disability offset. Casson appealed. The Court of Appeal reversed in the published case of Casson v. Orange County Employees Retirement System – G060950 (January 2023).
This appeal arises from a claim for a service-connected disability retirement (i.e., retirement arising from an on-the-job injury) under a pension governed by the County Employees Retirement Law of 1937, Government Code section 31450 et seq. (CERL).
The parties have presented a single issue on appeal: Does the term “disability allowance” in section 31838.5 include payments under a prior service pension in the absence of reciprocity? This is a pure statutory interpretation issue.
The opinion first answered the question “what is reciprocity?” At the time of retiring from a qualifying job, the employee may elect to defer pension benefits and leave his or her contributions on deposit with the pension plan. (§ 31700.) If, within the applicable timeframes, the employee is employed in another government position with a qualifying pension plan, the employee may elect to link the two pensions in a system of reciprocity. (§ 31831.) The effect of that election is the employee does not receive pension benefits under the first plan until he or he or she retires from the second plan. The advantage to the employee is that he or she enters the second pension plan with the same amount of service credit as the first plan.
Reciprocity is not automatic. An employee must affirmatively elect reciprocity. (§ 31831.) In this case Casson did not.
Government Code section 31838.5 places certain limits on the amount of disability pay a person may receive if he or she has been the beneficiary of multiple CERL retirement plans. OCERS’ argument, which the trial court adopted, is relatively straightforward: section 31838.5, on its face, does not limit its application to reciprocal pensions. Indeed, the word reciprocal is nowhere mentioned in the statute.
Casson takes the view that section 31838.5 only applies to reciprocal pensions.
The court of appeal agreed with Casson and said “Casson did not elect reciprocity. He chose to treat the two pensions as separate. He forwent valuable benefits to do so. The compelling logic of treating the two pensions as one for disability purposes, therefore, simply does not apply. On the contrary, it would be fundamentally unfair to Casson to limit his disability allowance to the equivalent of a single pension when he did not elect the benefits of treating the two pensions as one.”