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Rhode Island American Federation of Teachers/Retired Local 8037 v. Johnston School Committee

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 19, 2019

Rhode Island American Federation of Teachers/Retired Local 8037 et al.
v.
Johnston School Committee et al.

          Providence County Superior Court PC 15-3044 Maureen B. Keough Associate Justice.

          For Plaintiffs: Carly Beauvais Iafrate, Esq.

          For Defendants: William J. Conley, Jr., Esq. Deidre E. Carreno, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

          OPINION

          Maureen McKenna Goldberg Associate Justice.

         This case came before the Supreme Court on March 28, 2019, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. The defendants, the Town of Johnston, the Johnston School Department, the Johnston School Committee, and various municipal officials (collectively the town), appeal from the entry of summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs, the Rhode Island American Federation of Teachers/Retired Local 8307 and several retirees of the Johnston School Department (collectively the association), [1] in this dispute about the cost of annual premiums for post-retirement life insurance benefits. After hearing the arguments of counsel and examining the memoranda submitted by the parties, we are satisfied that cause has not been shown, and proceed to decide this appeal. For the reasons set forth herein, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

         Facts and Travel

         The material facts in this case are not in dispute. This appeal concerns the annual cost of a life insurance policy made available to retired teachers in Johnston, Rhode Island, pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 16-16-42. According to a collective-bargaining agreement governing Johnston's active schoolteachers' terms of employment, the town provided life insurance in the amount of $45, 000. The town paid the insurance premium for actively employed teachers; however, when a teacher retired, the insurance policy would remain in effect on the condition that the retired teacher assumed responsibility for paying the premium.

         For many years, the annual cost of life insurance for a retired teacher was the annual cost in effect at the time of the teacher's retirement.[2] In late 2010, the town changed its insurance carrier to Minnesota Life Insurance Company (Minnesota Life) and selected a policy that reduced the premium rate for active teachers and increased the rate for retired teachers.[3] As a result, teachers who retired on or after January 1, 2011, were required to pay a higher premium. In August 2013, the town entered into a subsequent policy agreement with Minnesota Life that significantly increased the annual rate for retired teachers.[4]

         In response, the association filed this action in Superior Court, seeking a declaratory judgment that, in accordance with § 16-16-42, the town is statutorily "required to provide the life insurance policy at an annual cost that was in effect on the last day of [a teacher's] employment[.]"[5] The association subsequently moved for summary judgment, arguing that § 16-16-42 prohibits the town from assessing increased life insurance rates for teachers upon retirement because the plain language of the statute requires the town to provide life insurance to retired teachers at the same annual cost it paid before the teacher retired. The town filed an objection, along with a cross-motion for summary judgment, countering that § 16-16-42 is clear and unambiguous; and, pursuant to the statute's plain and ordinary meaning, the town argued, it is required to furnish the retiree with "the option of retaining the life insurance policy at 'an amount equal to the annual cost of the policy for the individual at the time of the individual's retirement.'" The town further asserted that, by "provid[ing] the retirees with the option of continuing the insurance coverage at the rate in effect at the retirees' retirements," it has complied with the requirements set forth in § 16-16-42.

         The Superior Court justice heard arguments on both motions and issued a written decision in which she determined that § 16-16-42 is clear and unambiguous; she held that, "pursuant to the clear statutory mandates, the [t]own is required to provide retirees the option of maintaining the life insurance policy that was in effect at the time of their retirement at the same annual cost each retiree paid before his or her retirement." The trial justice explicated that "[a]s there is no other annual cost, the only plausible meaning is that the Legislature intended the retiree to be substituted as the payor on the already established plan at the rate paid by the [t]own." Accordingly, the hearing justice granted the association's motion for summary judgment and declared that the town was "required to provide life insurance to each retiree at the same annual cost that was in effect on the last day of his or her employment." The town timely appealed.

         Standard of Review

         This Court "reviews a ruling on a motion for summary judgment de novo." Epic Enterprises LLC v. Bard Group, LLC, 186 A.3d 587, 589 (R.I. 2018) (brackets omitted) (quoting Pimentel v. Deutsche Bank National Trust Company, 174 A.3d 740, 743 (R.I. 2017)). "We will affirm a trial court's summary judgment decision only if, after reviewing the admissible evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, we conclude that no genuine issue of material fact exists and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Id. (brackets omitted) (quoting Newstone Development, LLC v. East Pacific, LLC, 140 A.3d 100, 103 (R.I. 2016)). Moreover, "[a] matter that hinges on ...


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