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School retirees' lawsuit essentially tossed in court

It seemed almost all of the 105 Halifax County School retirees who brought a lawsuit for declaratory judgment against the Halifax County School Board packed the circuit courtroom in Halifax on Monday morning.

They left disappointed after Pittsylvania County Judge Charles L. Strauss granted a demurrer entered by school board attorney Craig Wood, essentially ending the case as it is currently structured.

In his ruling, Strauss said the proper course of action was for the plaintiffs to argue breach of contract rather than bring a suit for declaratory judgment.

Strauss said he agreed with some of the arguments presented by Wood and Rand, and he disagreed with some of the arguments presented by both attorneys.

“That’s the proper way to do it,” said Strauss, adding he understood why the plaintiffs, through attorney Ben Rand, filed the suit the way it was structured considering the number of plaintiffs involved.

The Local Optional Retirement Plan, a program that had allowed recent retirees to earn 20 percent of their salary at the time of retirement in return for filling in for work at the schools on a part-time or temporary basis, was designed to pay benefits over seven years, but the way it was structured was unconstitutional from the beginning, according to Wood.

“There are a lot of issues applicable here…each case has to be decided on its own merits,” said Wood after the hearing.

Rand had argued the suit for declaratory judgment was “not only the proper vehicle but the only vehicle.”

“We have 105 plaintiffs entering the same contract, and the same legal questions apply to each contract,” Rand told Strauss.

“It makes no sense to split these parties up,” Rand continued.

“LORP was approved and budgeted for 2012-13.  In July it was removed. The question is does the [school] board have the right to do that?

“It’s obviously a contract of continuing services that falls outside of the debt prohibition of the Virginia Constitution,” he added.

The plaintiffs have 90 days from the point Judge Strauss enters his order to appeal the ruling, and the appeal process could take up to a year, according to Wood.

Rand and Mike Wilborne, a spokesperson for the plaintiffs, both indicated after the hearing they were undecided on their next move.