Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Ludwig vs Metro: More Tragedy from Metro's Sloppiness

On August 10, former Metro cop Paul F. Ludwig III, only 61, died after a short, but brutal battle with cancer. He died before achieving his last wish in life: to settle a protracted and bitter legal battle with WMATA that left him and his wife homeless.

His story has made the Internet rounds to some degree, but it has been as a social media story. We reported here a while ago that the Ludwig campaign had forced Metro to take down its Facebook page, but here's the human side of a very sad tale.

Metro’s carelessness manifests itself in many ways. From the simple, laughable typo on all the Metro system maps to major tragedies like the Red Line Crash of June 22, 2009, it should be obvious to anyone that Metro is infested with a lax culture that all too often ignores details that cost the agency millions or, worse yet, leave employees and customers dead.

Here’s yet another tragic story of how Metro’s sloppiness, followed by near-belligerent defensiveness, ruined the life of one of its own.

In August of 2008, former Metro Transit Police Department officer Paul Ludwig and his wife Linda were living a relatively good life. He was getting his disability check from Metro because of a back injury he’d suffered while on the job in 1990, after a mere eight years of service with MTPD. It should be noted the Ludwig had, before coming to Metro, served eight years in the DC police force, receiving numerous commendations.

Despite Ludwig's attempts to rehabilitate his injury, his back problems left him permanently disabled. It took nearly three years for Ludwig to get Metro to finally let him retire with disability pay. The struggle was a foreshadowing of things to come.

While hardly a lavish amount, the stipend provided Ludwig and his wife with a modest yet comfortable living. But in July of '08, Ludwig received the letter from WMATA telling him that starting in September, his pension was going to be cut drastically.

To make matters worse, WMATA informed him that his pension should have been slashed one year prior.

"Because of this error they informed my dad that they were going to suspend his pension entirely starting in September until the repayment was made," said Ludwig's son Mark. "They claimed he owed $24,000 and some change."

Mark said his dad later got an amended letter saying the amount owed was $20,000.

“Mom and dad had very little money coming in, so eventually, they were forced to short sell their home and move in with my brother Paul, who is currently an MTPD K9 cop.

“We weren't going to allow them to be homeless,” he said. “We had room. They weren't going to be out on the street.”

The sharp reduction in pay was particularly shocking because in 2001, as a proof of income document he needed to refinance his home, Ludwig received a letter from Metro stating his benefits were for life.

The letter, which is pictured above, reads:
Mr. Paul F. Ludwig III retired on disability from the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority on June 1, 1993. His current monthly pension amount from the Transit Police Retirement Plan is $2,278.90 which is payable for his lifetime, and is subject to cost of living increases.
The letter is addressed to a mortgage official and is signed by Marlene J. Ruston a "senior benefits program specialist - retirement."

When Ludwig contacted WMATA regarding the steep cut in benefits, he spoke with James R. Davis, who was, at the time, a "plan administration manager," at Metro. Ludwig, confused by what was going on, referred to the 2001 letter.

"Davis scoffed at my dad and said the person who’d signed the letter as a ‘benefits specialist’ was ‘just a secretary,’” Mark said.

When his dad pressed Metro further, Mark said Metro’s response was “Well, sue us.”

"Dad spent a number of months visiting Metro, talking with the union there, the chief of police and others. He was trying to resolve this on his own at this point," said Mark. "He was told after one particular union meeting that they were going to get his situation taken care of. After weeks of inaction, dad called Metro to ask what was going on, they basically said nothing had progressed with his situation."

In August 2009, Ludwig had enough and filed suit against Metro.

The case is still under litigation, so Metro is reluctant to comment on the details. They do confirm Ludwig was a former employee and that they are currently being sued.

Originally, the case was brought by Ludwig, but now that Ludwig is dead, it will require some legal maneuvering--and more delays--to pursue the case as the estate of Paul Ludwig.

Metro did confirm the following about the disability plan:
Under the existing contract between Metro and the Fraternal Order of Police/Metro Transit Police Department (MTPD) Labor Committee, Inc., MTPD officers whose employment ends because of a disability incurred in the line of duty receive a monthly disability retirement income benefit equal to 60 percent of their annual compensation at the date of disability.

These payments continue until the participant reaches normal retirement age, which is 25 years after date of hire or the attainment of age 65, whichever occurs first. At that time, the disability retirement income benefit stops and the participant begins to receive his normal retirement pension benefit. The normal retirement pension benefit is based on the participant’s final average earnings and years of service at the date of disability.
Unsuck spoke with a lawyer who specializes in pension law, who said it was unusual for a disability plan to have a drop off like that, particularly before Social Security would kick in.

Metro cops who retire normally, without disability, get a pension for life and their spouses are entitled to a percentage for the rest of their lives. The spouses of the deceased disabled get nothing, said Mark.

Regardless of the fine print of the plan, the lawyer thinks the Ludwigs have a good case because of the letter they received from Metro in 2001.

“The test is not what the person wrote or who they are, it’s what the recipient of the letter reasonably believes--and here there are several points in the letter that indicate reliance on the information in the letter--is reasonable.”

For example, the lawyer said, that the letter is addressed “to whom it may concern” would be an argument that the letter was meant for someone else, and that it was being used for a purpose [such as refinancing], and that it was true and reliable.

“In my experience, when a circumstances can lead to a reduction of benefit changes, plans issuing letters like that would normally caveat it,” they said. “There would be a disclaimer that it’s not fixed in stone.

“That letter couldn’t be better [for the Ludwigs],” they said. “No wonder their lawyer took the case.”

But instead of getting better for the Ludwigs, things got worse.

This past May, Ludwig was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and according to Mark, one of his dying wishes was to see his case against Metro come to some conclusion so that his wife would be able to live the rest of her life without the stress of financial uncertainty.

“Dad's original mediation hearing was set for August 9, 2010, which turned out to be the day before he died,” said Mark. “After the hearing was set, they then got a call from a Metro lawyer asking for a continuance because the lead attorney’s son died.”

According to Mark, his dad told Metro they could have all the time they needed, considering the circumstances.

But the months passed, and it wasn’t until Ludwig’s cancer diagnosis that the mediation hearing was set for March 8, 2011. At this point, Ludwig was fed up with the mediation process, and requested a jury trial.

“Metro has plenty of corporate lawyers,” said Mark. “They delayed because they wanted him to die, so they wouldn't have to deal with him. There's no reason they would have to set that hearing to 10 months in the future.”

The Ludwig’s claim against Metro includes, according to Mark, the following:
  • Moving the mediation hearing to now
  • Reinstating dad's pension for his lifetime
  • Establishing a retroactive "survival clause" for my mother so that she will receive dad's owed pension for her lifetime since he has now passed
  • WMATA paying my mother all of the back pay from September 2008 to today
  • Any other monies my mother and father were suing for (lawyer's fees, stress, hurt, distress caused by this situation
Furthermore, the family would like to see Metro
  • Abolish the "magic" cut off date for Anyone at the department forever
  • Establish the survival clause for all Officers
  • Pay owed money to any other officers affected by a similar situation
Given some of the violence that has occurred on Metro of late, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which a relatively young cop could be disabled on the job and then face the kind of cataclysmic drop off in benefits well before Social Security benefits kicked in.

Some of the incidents of late, in which Metro cops have been pilloried for either not being there or not being there in a timely fashion would lead one to believe that the current pension plan is a disincentive for Metro cops to assert themselves in potentially dangerous situations for fear of being injured and falling into the same benefits crack that Ludwig did.

But for the Ludwig's, the heart of the matter, as Mark, said, is that "no one from WMATA has even bothered to call and say 'I'm sorry.'"

Despite Ludwig's death and all the delays, the family shows no sign of giving up the fight. So far, its biggest weapon against Metro has been a Facebook page set up by Ludwig's grandson, Logan. In short amount of time, the page has garnered nearly 51,000 fans. But that's really more of a social media story, so we'll turn it over to allfacebook.com for more on that.
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