I-Team: State Agency’s Delayed Decisions Keep Hard-Earned Retirement Money Out Of Reach

BROCKTON (CBS) — For almost three decades, Fred Cram has proudly worn his crossing guard uniform while helping get kids to school safely.

During a career with the Brockton School District, Cram’s primary job was a custodian. But like many of his custodial colleagues, Cram also worked regular crossing guard shifts before and after school.

Even after retiring in 2013, the 67-year-old still enjoys picking up part-time shifts to help students across the street.

Fred Cram. (WBZ)

Fred Cram. (WBZ)

“I like the interaction with the kids,” Cram told the WBZ I-Team.

During his time working with the school district, pension deductions were taken out of Cram’s paycheck for the crossing guard duties.

However, in 2012, the Brockton Retirement Board adopted the position that the crossing guard payments did not qualify as “regular compensation” under state law, and as a result, should not be factored into Cram and other employees’ pension amounts.

One of the affected custodians appealed the decision.

So when Cram retired the following year, the $13,391 taken out of his paychecks over the years remained in limbo. Same goes for the $595,133 socked away by about 120 other Brockton custodians who retired after 2012 or are still working.

More than four years later, little has changed.

“Pretty bad timing,” Cram said. “It’s frustrating because it’s our money we put in there.”

For Ellen Horsman, it’s already too late. Husband Dennis ran out of time, passing away on May 29.

The former custodian worked almost 40 years for the school district.

“He kept saying to me, ‘I’ll be gone before this is settled.’ And he is,” Ellen told the WBZ I-Team with tears in her eyes. “This is how you reward someone who gives his heart and soul into his job?”

Ellen Horsman (WBZ)

Ellen Horsman (WBZ)

The retirement case was held up at a little-known, but powerful, state agency called the Division of Administrative Law Appeals (DALA).

The agency makes critical decisions impacting everyday life in Massachusetts, hearing appeals from licensed professionals like doctors, nurses, and daycare operators who are contesting disciplinary measures by state boards.

A large chunk of DALA’s cases are local and state employees who disagree with pension calculations, just like the situation with the Brockton custodians.

The Brockton case lasted more than four years. Even after closing arguments were filed in May 2015, a magistrate didn’t issue a decision until July, days after the I-Team inquired about the case.

Chief Magistrate Ed McGrath said the timing was coincidental. Regardless, the head of the agency admitted it was far too long for families to wait for a decision.

Ed McGrath. (WBZ)

Ed McGrath. (WBZ)

“That kind of wait is not acceptable and we realize that,” McGrath said. “I think things have to improve and they will improve.”

An internal report obtained by the I-Team shows the Brockton case is far from an isolated incident.

Consultants with The Ripples Group identified delays as DALA’s main issue. According to the report, completed in April, 70% of petitioners disagree their cases were handles in a timely manner.

It is a problem stretching back to 2000, the year the agency started accumulating a massive backlog of cases.

Consultants recommended DALA spend $800,000 to temporarily hire magistrates for a two-year period to address the backlog dilemma. But McGrath said that idea is not in the budget forecast.

A new case-tracking system and other recent procedural changes are making a difference, he said. For the first time in 15 years, the agency closed more cases than it received in 2015.

“It’s going to take time. It’s going to take a long-term commitment, but we will make things better,” McGrath promised.

In the Brockton case, a DALA magistrate upheld the decision, ruling the crossing guard payments should not be calculated into pension amounts.

“Any retirement contributions withheld from traffic duty payments shall be refunded,” the ruling said.

The former custodian challenging the case is now pursuing one final legal appeal before the issue is resolved.

So, for now, Cram continues to wait for the $13,000 check to land in his mailbox.

“We’re on a fixed income,” he said. “There are a lot of things we could use the money for.”

Horsman said her late husband had wanted to take his three sons and seven grandchildren on a trip. Even if the money finally arrives, the grieving widow already feels robbed.

“It’s a shame he’s not going to have that chance to be with his family on the vacation of a lifetime,” she said while fighting back tears. “They stole that from us.”

Ryan Kath can be reached at rkath@cbs.com. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.

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