New Castle News

January 6, 2010

THE COURTS: Mother of ex-district attorney sues county


The mother of the former district attorney, who worked for him in his office, is suing the county commissioners.

Sue Bongivengo, 62, filed a lawsuit Dec. 31 against the officials claiming they denied her right to an early retirement under an incentive offered last year to all Lawrence County courthouse employees who were between 62 and 65.

She is seeking $43,200 in damages for her loss of insurance coverage over those three years.

Bongivengo has been working in the district attorney’s office after she was hired by her son, John Bongivengo, when he was elected four years ago. He was defeated in last year’s primary election by Joshua Lamancusa, who took over the office Monday.



THE INCENTIVE

In a cost-cutting move, the commissioners offered an early retirement incentive to county employees.

The offer was that if any employee turning 62 by Dec. 31, 2010, would opt for the program, the county would pay that person’s benefits until he or she reaches 65 or becomes eligible for Medicare coverage.

Employees were to have notified the commissioners of their intent by Sept. 30. Eight workers accepted the offer and retired.

The commissioners had explained the incentive was offered to save the county money by eliminating salaries at a time when cash was running short.

The eight retirements were estimated to have saved about $69,000 last year. If those positions remain unfilled this year, the county would save an additional $300,000, according to information from the controller's office.

Most of the employees had worked at the courthouse for more than 10 years, and a few for more than 20 years.

Jonathan Solomon, Bongivengo’s attorney, said there was no restriction in the commissioners’ resolution on the number of years an employee was required to have worked to be eligible.

Pennsylvania Act 96, the county pension law, requires an employee to have worked five years before becoming vested. Although Bongivengo has been an employee for four years, being vested “has nothing to do with this,” Solomon pointed out.

The commissioners resolution pertains to all employees, he said, “and they told her she was eligible. They didn’t deny it.”

Bongivengo is a member of Construction and General Laborers Union Local 964, which requires members to work five years before they are eligible for retirement, deputy controller David Prestopine explained Tuesday.



GRIEVANCE MATTER

When Bongivengo decided to retire early, the union filed a grievance with the county human resources office, Solomon said, and the director, Karen King, denied the grievance as a matter outside the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. She ruled it was neither grievable or arbitable.

The union had contended Bongivengo didn’t have enough time under the union’s plan and wasn’t eligible for the continuation of the benefits to age 65, Solomon said.

He and Bongivengo then met with King and county solicitor Thomas W. Leslie, he said, and worked out the proposed terms for her retirement that Leslie would take to the commissioners.

“We worked out how she could be put into the right classification ... and what should have been a nice compromise within the rules of the county,” he said.

“They never not got back to us,” he said of the commissioners.

The commissioners said they didn’t intend for the resolution to apply to these particular union employees, Solomon said, “but we believe it includes her. They hadn’t worked out the details of the nuts and bolts of this, and the resolution that was sent out was painted with a very broad brush.

“Normally, from my experience, when a public employer wants to create an early retirement package, they actually go to the unions and say this is what they’d like to do and get the union’s input,” Solomon said.

He pointed out that granting Bongivengo her early retirement would have saved the county money because she would not have been paid her salary.

Had the commissioners granted her the early retirement, the district attorney’s office would have come up short-staffed for this year when Lamancusa took over because the salary board previously had abolished the office manager position there at John Bongivengo’s request.

A hiring freeze that has been in effect for more than a year prohibits vacant positions from being filled for six months.

But Solomon argues, “This resolution wasn’t contingent upon hiring freezes or anything else. It’s an offer, and she accepted it.”

Solomon contends in the filing that Sue Bongivengo informed the commissioners and Leslie around Sept. 21 that she had decided to accept the early retirement as of Dec. 31, contingent upon her receiving those benefits. That also is the last day her son was in office.

Bongivengo contends in her lawsuit that Commissioner Steve Craig told her he accepted her offer.

Solomon’s argument is that the commissioners’ refusal to grant Bongivengo the early retirement is a material breach of contract, and that she is entitled to recover damages for that cost in the form of medical, dental and vision and life insurance costs at an estimated $1,200 per month. He contends the principal amount in damages is $43,200.

If granted, that amount would be payable over 2010, 2011 and 2012 — the three years it would take for her to reach age 65, he said.

The commissioners would comment about the case, saying it is a personnel matter and a litigation issue.