SCHENECTADY — Former St. Clare’s employees have gained additional legal help as they struggle to regain the pension benefits promised to them.
Pensioners of the defunct Schenectady hospital met Sunday with attorneys from the litigation unit of the AARP Foundation, the charitable arm of the national senior citizen advocacy organization.
Senior attorney Dara Smith said she and attorney Meryl Grenadier will be working to help the former employees, many of whom are beyond or at least nearing retirement age and cannot easily make up the income lost when their pension payments were reduced or eliminated.
Smith said the Foundation has been involved in many similar cases, either through litigation or by filing supporting briefs.
“We definitely know the issues extremely well,” she said.
But beyond the legal issues are the human issues, she added: “The bottom line is that these folks worked extremely hard for a community that needed them ... they did not deserve to be treated like this.”
St. Clare’s was a safety-net hospital that treated many under- or uninsured patients. As such, it ran into financial problems and was chronically short on its pension fund contributions before it was absorbed into what is now Ellis Medicine in 2008. The estimated pension fund shortfall now stands at more than $50 million.
Bob Bradley of Clifton Park, one of the leaders of a committee of pensioners fighting to recover the benefits promised to his wife and more than 1,100 other pensioners, said he and others found Sunday’s sitdown with the AARP Foundation uplifting. “It was a good meeting. It’s really nice to have their resources to assist in our fight.”
Mary Hartshorne, another committee leader, said the involvement of AARP Foundation was welcomed by the four dozen or so pensioners at Sunday’s meeting.
“This comes at a good time for us because people are getting discouraged,” she said, due to lack of visible progress.
Bradley and Hartshorne said any of the pensioners can seek assistance from Smith and Grenadier at no cost — they are able to represent or counsel individuals, though they cannot represent the pensioners as a whole as a class.
“We’ve been talking to them for a while,” Smith said, but Sunday was the first group meeting.
The pensioners now have multiple attorneys representing or advising them.
Albany Law School professor David Pratt began helping them early on, and helped recruit some of the others. Legal Aid attorney Victoria Esposito in Albany and Legal Services NYC Gary Stone came aboard next, then Clifton Park attorney David Pentkowski became an adviser for Bradley’s wife, Karen. Now the AARP Foundation lawyers are helping.
“We’ve been talking to AARP for a while about the possibility of them getting involved,” Pratt said. “We are delighted because even though we had several attorneys involved there’s plenty of work to go around.”
Esposito, who represents two St. Clare’s pensioners, said there have been positive and negative developments in the past several months but she’s “seen and heard nothing concrete that would make my clients whole.”
A main point of focus now is the court effort to block the St. Clare’s Corporation’s efforts to dissolve itself. The legacy corporation has no money left with which to pay pensions, but its dissolution would complicate any investigation into why the pension fund developed problems, the pensioners believe.
One of the pensioners’ few causes for optimism has been the recent effort by the state Attorney General’s Office to delay the dissolution so it could investigate the situation in its role as watchdog over the state’s nonprofits.
Esposito and Smith wouldn’t reveal their strategy or predict what the next step might be, but said litigation, while not the preferred course of action, remains an option — one that Smith said looks increasingly likely.
“We are absolutely not taking that off the table if that gets my clients relief,” Esposito said.
What people or entities might be sued also is not being discussed. Frequently mentioned as sources of pension bailout money are state government (the Department of Health engineered the St. Clare’s shutdown) and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, which was closely connected to the hospital before, during and after its six-decade existence.
Pratt said the general principle of litigation is to sue everyone with money who might be compelled to pay. Any litigation over the St. Clare’s pension fund would likely involve multiple defendants, he added, not disclosing any likely candidates.
The Department of Health has said the diocese has a moral responsibility to solve the pension crisis. The diocese has said it was only affiliated with the hospital, didn’t cause the crisis, and can’t pay to fix it.