Bruno v. Milwaukee County

Decision Date01 May 2003
Docket NumberNo. 01-1970.,01-1970.
Citation2003 WI 28,260 Wis.2d 633,660 N.W.2d 656
PartiesJames BRUNO, James Schindler, Edgar Wesling, Fred Antonich, William J. Beam, Lyle H. Bonnin, George A. Bowman, Martha Clark, Rosario Consiglio, Robert G. Francis, John Glowacki, Herbert A. Goetsch, Dorothy Haynes, Kenneth Henrics, George Kozik, Pearl Kulinski, Mary Landis, William Moser, Virginia E. O'Connell, William O. Polley, Rosemary Pulito, Chester Sobush, William Stead, Shirley Whittow, and Bernard Wood, Plaintiffs-Appellants-Petitioners, v. MILWAUKEE COUNTY, Milwaukee County Employees Retirement System, and Milwaukee County Pension Board, Defendants-Respondents.
CourtWisconsin Supreme Court

For the plaintiffs-appellants-petitioners there were briefs by Lynne A. Layber, Milwaukee, and oral argument by Lynne A. Layber.

For the defendants-respondents there was a brief and oral argument by John F. Jorgensen, principal assistant corporation counsel.

¶ 1. DIANE S. SYKES, J.

The issue in this case is whether certain former Milwaukee County employees who qualified for "deferred vested pensions" at the time they terminated their county employment have "retired from the county" within the meaning of the Milwaukee County Code for purposes of receiving a military service pension credit. Applying the plain language of the applicable ordinance provisions, we conclude that the former employees were "retired from the county" and are therefore eligible for the military service pension credit.

¶ 2. In November of 1996, the Milwaukee County Board enacted an ordinance granting a military service pension credit to certain members of the Milwaukee County Employees' Retirement System ("retirement system") who had served in the military during specified timeframes.1 The ordinance took effect, prospectively only, on January 1, 1997, and applies to "all retirees who retired from the county before July 1, 1985." Milwaukee County General Ordinances § 201.24(2.10).

¶ 3. After applying for the credit and being denied, 25 former Milwaukee County employees filed this action in Milwaukee County Circuit Court requesting a declaration of entitlement to the military service pension credit.2 Each former employee is a member of the retirement system, left county employment before July 1, 1985, with a "deferred vested pension," and later (although still prior to July 1, 1985) began receiving payment on the deferred vested pension. See M.C.G.O. §§ 201.24(4.5) and 201.24(2.5).

¶ 4. Judge David A. Hansher, Milwaukee County Circuit Court, concluded that the plaintiffs were not eligible for the military service credit, and the court of appeals affirmed. Bruno v. Milwaukee County, No. 01-1970, unpublished slip. op. (Wis. Ct. App. Apr. 9, 2002). Both the circuit court and the court of appeals concluded that in order to have "retired from the county" for purposes of the military service credit, a retirement system member must have been old enough to immediately begin drawing a pension at the time he or she left county employment. According to this interpretation of the applicable ordinance provisions, retirement system members who left county service with deferred vested pensions had not "retired from the county."

¶ 5. We granted the retirees' petition for review, and now reverse. Although none of these retirement system members began collecting a pension immediately upon leaving county employment, each one qualified for a deferred vested pension at the time of termination, and this meets the definition of "retirement" in the Milwaukee County Code. See M.C.G.O § 201.24(2.19). Retirement system members who leave county employment with deferred vested pensions have "retired from the county" for purposes of the military service credit.

[1, 2]

¶ 6. This case involves the interpretation and application of an ordinance to an undisputed set of facts. "The rules for the construction of statutes and municipal ordinances are the same." County of Columbia v. Bylewski, 94 Wis. 2d 153, 169 n.7, 288 N.W.2d 129 (1980). The interpretation and application of an ordinance to an undisputed set of facts is a question of law, which this court decides de novo. County of Adams v. Romeo, 191 Wis. 2d 379, 383, 528 N.W.2d 418 (1995).

[3]

¶ 7. We begin with the language of the applicable ordinances. "If the plain meaning of the [ordinance] is clear, a court need not look to rules of statutory construction or other extrinsic aids. Instead, a court should simply apply the clear meaning of the [ordinance] to the facts before it." UFE Inc. v. LIRC, 201 Wis. 2d 274, 281-282, 548 N.W.2d 57 (1996) (internal citations omitted). [4, 5]

¶ 8. We have "long recognized that when a court construes an ordinance or statute, words must be given their common meaning." Weber v. Town of Saukville, 209 Wis. 2d 214, 224, 562 N.W.2d 412 (1997) (citing State v. Martin, 162 Wis. 2d 883, 904, 470 N.W.2d 900 (1991) (citations omitted in original)). It is also "well established that technical words or phrases with a peculiar meaning in the law must be construed according to such meaning." Id.

¶ 9. The Milwaukee County Code establishes several categories of retirement and sets forth the various requirements a retirement system member must meet in order to qualify for a pension. See generally M.C.G.O. § 201.24(4.1) ("normal retirement"); § 201.24(4.2) ("early retirement"); § 201.24(4.3) ("accidental disability retirement"); § 201.24(4.4) ("ordinary disability retirement"); and § 201.24(4.5) ("deferred vested retirement").3

¶ 10. Section 201.24(4.5) sets forth the requirements for "deferred vested retirement," also referred to in the code as a "deferred vested pension." See M.C.G.O. § 201.24(4.1).4 Section 201.24(2.19) defines "retirement":

Retirement shall mean termination of employment after a member has fulfilled all requirements for a pension. Retirement shall be considered as commencing on the day immediately following a member's last day of employment (or authorized leave of absence, if later), and terminating upon date of death of retiree or beneficiary under option.

M.C.G.O. § 201.24(2.19).

¶ 11. Section 201.24(2.10) states that the military service pension credit "shall apply to all retirees who retired from the county before July 1, 1985." M.C.G.O. § 201.24(2.10). It is undisputed that each of the retirement system members here met all of the requirements for a deferred vested pension and terminated county service prior to July 1, 1985.

¶ 12. Whether these retirement system members are entitled to receive the military service pension credit provided for in section 201.24(2.10) of the Milwaukee County Code depends upon whether they "retired from the county" within the meaning of that section and the related definitional sections of the code. As noted above, "retirement" is a defined term in the code: it means "termination of employment after a member has fulfilled all requirements for a pension." M.C.G.O. § 201.24(2.19). A "deferred vested pension" is a "pension" under the code. M.C.G.O. §§ 201.24(2.6) and (4.5). Indeed, section 201.24(4.5), which sets forth the criteria for deferred vested pensions, is entitled "Deferred vested retirement." M.C.G.O. § 201.24(4.5) (emphasis added). The code's definition of "retirement" also states that retirement commences "on the day immediately following a member's last day of employment." M.C.G.O. § 201.24(2.19).

¶ 13. These terms, phrases, and definitions are not ambiguous. A retirement system member who leaves county service having qualified for a deferred vested pension has "retired from the county" within the meaning of the code.5 Although an employee leaving county service with a deferred vested pension does not immediately begin to collect payments on that pension, he or she has "fulfilled all requirements for a pension" at the time of termination, which satisfies the definition of "retirement" in the code.

¶ 14. Milwaukee County argues that in order to be "retired from the county" a retirement system member must leave county service and begin drawing pension payments immediately. This interpretation adds words to the definition of "retirement." The code does not define "retirement" as "termination of employment after a member has fulfilled all requirements for a pension and is old enough to immediately begin receiving pension payments." It defines "retirement" as "termination of employment after a member has fulfilled all requirements for a pension." The definition does not mention receipt of pension payments.

¶ 15. The ordinance does not confine the term "retirement" to terminations of county service with immediate eligibility to begin drawing a pension. It requires only that the terminating employee has fulfilled the requirements for a pension. Each of the employees in this case terminated employment after having fulfilled all requirements for a pension—a "deferred vested pension." M.C.G.O. §§ 201.24(2.19) and 201.24(4.5). Because "[r]etirement shall be considered as commencing on the day immediately following a member's last day of employment," M.C.G.O. § 201.24(2.19), these deferred vested retirement system members "retired from the county before July 1, 1985" for purposes of the military service credit. Payment of the deferred vested pension did not begin until each member's "normal retirement date,"6 although this, too, occurred before July 1, 1985, for each of these retirement system members. [6]

¶ 16. The Milwaukee County ordinance extending military service pension credit to all those who "retired from the county before July 1, 1985" is clear and unambiguous, as is the definition of "retirement" in the Milwaukee County Code. Together, they plainly state that all those who retired from the county before that date—that is, terminated county employment having "fulfilled all the requirements for a pension"—are entitled to the credit. The county's interpretation of the applicable ordinance provisions ignores...

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