October 31, 2023, Philadelphia, Pa. — Philadelphia firefighters have filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that union officials have deprived rank-and-file firefighters of their full pension benefits by knowingly providing bad financial advice. The plaintiffs believe union officials with the International Association of Firefighters, Local 22, (Local 22) engaged in this decades-long scheme to preserve the opportunity to maximize pension benefits for themselves and their friends.
Due to Local 22 officials’ deception, at least 100 city firefighters and their families have potentially lost thousands of dollars of annual pension benefits for decades to come, the plaintiffs believe. The lawsuit seeks to recover lost pension benefits for the plaintiffs and others similarly situated and to hold accountable the officials responsible for this scheme.
Union’s Ongoing Scheme to Deprive Firefighters of Full Pension Benefits
In a limited period prior to retirement, professional firefighters employed by the Philadelphia Fire Department can sell back their unused vacation days and have them count toward their pension benefits. But union officials have “actively concealed this information,” according to the complaint, and have advised rank-and-file firefighters not to sell back their vacation days, costing firefighters potentially thousands of dollars per year in pension benefits.
Nathan McGrath, president and general counsel for the Fairness Center, which represents the plaintiffs, said, “Our clients allege that union officials have been deliberately and systematically providing harmful financial advice to city firefighters. Rather than representing all firefighters fairly, union officials appear to have favored themselves and their friends over rank-and-file firefighters.”
The plaintiffs, Joe Farrell and Pat Viola, both of whom are Local 22 members, believe union officials pushed this bad advice to preserve for themselves and their friends the opportunity to cash in unused vacation days and boost their own pensions. In the complaint, Farrell alleges that Local 22’s financial secretary told him that “if too many Fire Department employees sold back their vacation time, the City would eliminate the benefit.” The secretary also indicated to Farrell that the union had full knowledge of when vacation sellbacks would or would not be applied to pension benefit calculations and that the union would “never inform the membership body” of how vacation sellbacks work.
Philly Firefighters’ Lawsuit Seeks to Recover Lost Benefits
Farrell and Viola would have sold back their unused vacation days within the window that would have allowed them to accrue additional pension benefits had union officials not advised against it. Farrell, for example, had approximately six weeks of vacation that he could have applied to his pension if not for union officials’ intervention. Their class-action lawsuit seeks to recover their lost pension benefits, to hold union officials accountable to their legal duty to represent employees fairly, and to ensure city firefighters know the truth about how vacation sellbacks affect pensions.
Viola said, “It’s bad enough that I will have a smaller pension because of union officials’ deception. But it’s infuriating that if my wife survives me, she will have less to live on.”
McGrath said, “Our clients want every single city firefighter to know what union officials are concealing from them: the truth about how vacation sellbacks can affect pension benefits.”
Union Officials’ Scheme Violates ‘Duty of Fair Representation’
Under Pennsylvania law, public-sector unions have a “duty of fair representation” that requires them to represent all employees in their bargaining units in good faith and without discrimination. But Local 22 officials’ pension deception “elevat[ed] the interests of the Union and Union officials above that of Plaintiffs and proposed class members,” according to the complaint.
The Fairness Center’s previous clients have successfully applied the duty of fair representation in Pennsylvania. Beginning in 2018, the firm represented a group of Erie Water Works employees who filed a lawsuit, Kiddo v. AFSCME, after union officials concealed a retirement offer from employees during a contract ratification vote. In 2021, an Erie County judge ruled that AFSCME had breached its duty of fair representation. This spring, the employees settled their case to the mutual satisfaction of all parties.
- Joseph Farrell is a 38-year veteran of the Philadelphia Fire Department. He currently holds the position of captain.
- Patrick Viola is a 25-year veteran firefighter with the Philadelphia Fire Department.
- Potential class members could include at least 100 other firefighters similarly situated.
Fairness Center attorneys are available for comment. Please contact Anna Kertland at email@example.com or 844.293.1001 to schedule an interview.
The Fairness Center is a nonprofit, public interest law firm offering free legal services to those hurt by public-sector union officials. For more information visit www.FairnessCenter.org.