Disability status for CalPERS retirees must remain private, court rules

The disability status of CalPERS retirees will remain private, at least for now, following a Nov. 6 Sacramento County Superior Court ruling.

The Nevada Policy and Research Institute, a libertarian-leaning nonprofit organization that posts public salaries and pension payments to the website Transparent California, requested the information from the California Public Employees’ Retirement System last year.

CalPERS denied the request, citing an exemption in the California Public Records Act for medical records.

The group sued the pension fund in August 2018, arguing that “disability” is too broad a designation to be withheld under the medical exemption.

Four California unions joined CalPERS in the lawsuit.

“In our position, this is something that goes straight to the heart of our members’ individual privacy rights,” said Wendi Berkowitz, an attorney representing unions from the firm Messing Adam and Jasmine.

Robert Fellner, Transparent California’s executive director, said the group plans to appeal the ruling.

“The one-word identifier is not tantamount to disclosing their medical records; that’s our disagreement,” Fellner said.

Fellner said past instances of high-profile disability fraud demonstrate the need for more oversight.

The Sacramento Bee in 2004 detailed disability abuses among the top ranks of the California Highway Patrol, where 80 percent of retiring chiefs filed disability claims within two years of retirement.

More recently, the Los Angeles Times has exposed a number of retired city employees who’ve received lucrative disability payments and gone on to complete half-marathon races and other physically demanding challenges.

Work-related disability pensions are desirable because they allow public employees to retire early for medical reasons and to avoid paying income taxes.

Fellner said CalPERS’ denial of the records contradicts its operation of a disability fraud hotline, which provides an avenue for the public to help with oversight. The group wanted to know whether retirees’ pensions were classified as “service,” “disability” or “industrial disability.”

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Berkowitz said that line of reasoning is aimed at giving retirees’ neighbors or acquaintances grounds to level pension fraud claims against retirees based on ill-informed impressions.

For example, she said, a former firefighter who retired on disability might look physically capable, yet still be unable to perform the demanding tasks of fighting fires.

“It’s our position that whether somebody is disabled or not disabled is their own darn business and should not be something that is subject to forced disclosure,” she said.

About 600,000 people receive CalPERS pensions.

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Wes Venteicher anchors The Bee’s popular State Worker coverage in the newspaper’s Capitol Bureau. He covers taxes, pensions, unions, state spending and California government. A Montana native, he reported on health care and politics in Chicago and Pittsburgh before joining The Bee in 2018.