HOLLIDAYSBURG - In a precedent-setting case, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court has ruled that the widow of an Altoona firefighter, who died in 2008 shortly after retiring, is entitled to his pension.
The ruling overturns a decision by Blair County Judge Timothy M. Sullivan, who last year found that the firefighter, William Dambeck, was a vested member of the pension fund, but the judge cited a 1982 Supreme Court case supporting the position that pension benefits to a spouse were "not derivative" of her husband's rights to the benefit.
The judge concluded that Dambeck was not retired and not employed by the Altoona Fire Department when he died so his widow was not eligible for his pension.
A seven-member Commonwealth Court panel stated that the Third Class City Code requires the city to establish a pension fund financed by each member of the fire department and that "surviving spouses are to be paid the amount the member was receiving or would have been receiving at the time of his or her death."
In Altoona, a firefighter becomes vested in his pension after 12 years of service and could begin receiving benefits at age 50.
The Commonwealth Court opinion, written by Judge Dan Pellegrini, stated that pension laws are to be "liberally construed" in favor of the pensioners.
"Protection of the surviving spouse was one of the objectives intended to be accomplished under amendments to the [city code]," according to the opinion.
The court stated Dambeck was a member of the pension fund and "there is no dispute that surviving spouse had a right ... to benefits if Dambeck was 'retired on pension' when he retired."
The key language in the Dambeck case is "retired on pension," stated the Commonwealth Court.
It concluded the Legislature did not say "retired and receiving a pension" but "retired on pension" in its language meaning that a spouse was entitled to the pension if her husband had made application for a pension, that it was approved by the pension fund and that he was entitled to collect it at a future date.
Dambeck had satisfied all those requirements, the judges found.
"The order of the Court of Common Pleas of Blair County, dated Feb. 1, 2013, is reversed," Pellegrini wrote.
Dambeck, known as "Billy," was a city firefighter for 13 years. The 44-year-old left his job on Sept. 16, 2005, and died on March 27, 2008, having never received a payment from the fund. He left behind his wife, Kimberly Ann Dale-Dambeck, and three children.
During a hearing last year, Allen Wagner, the secretary of the Paid Firefighters Pension Board from 1985-2010, reported that he told Dale-Dambeck that she should receive the same benefits as her husband would have received because widows of vested members are recognized as recipients of benefits.
He advised her, he testified, not to apply for the benefits until the point her husband would have been eligible.
Wagner said other members of the pension board agreed with him.
The attorney for Dale-Dambeck was Wade Kagarise, who was sworn in as a Blair County Common Pleas Court judge on Friday, just an hour after the Commonwealth Court released its opinion.
Kagarise said Monday that the pension case was was argued before the Commonwealth Court panel on Dec. 11. He was surprised at the quick decision.
He said he believed in his argument that the spouse was entitled to the pension because Dambeck was vested and that, based on the law, the Legislature intended spouses to be eligible for their husband's pensions.
The decision, he said, "makes sense."
The firemen's pension fund was represented by Altoona attorney Alan Krier.
Krier said Monday the law in the present case seemed to be silent on whether the widow was entitled to a pension in view of the fact that her husband, when he died, was not employed by the fire department or actually receiving a pension.
It was the City Paid Firemen's Pension Board's decision to take it before Sullivan to obtain an answer on that question.