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Vine v. Teachers Retirement System

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, First Circuit

December 19, 2019

FRANK VINE
v.
TEACHERS RETIREMENT SYSTEM OF LOUISIANA

          On Appeal from the Nineteenth Judicial District Court In and for the Parish of East Baton Rouge State of Louisiana Docket No. C607425 Honorable Todd Hernandez, Judge Presiding

          Scott D. Wilson John A. London, III Baton Rouge, Louisiana Counsel for Plaintiff/Appellant Frank Vine

          Matthew G. Tessier Roy A. Mongrue, Jr. Baton Rouge, Louisiana Counsel for Defendant/ Appellee Teachers' Retirement System of Louisiana

          Mark D. Boyer Scott Nettles Denham Springs, Louisiana Counsel for Defendant/ Appellee West Feliciana Parish School Board

          Robert Hammonds Wayne T. Stewart Baton Rouge, Louisiana Counsel for Defendant/ Appellee Pointe Coupee Parish School Board

          BEFORE: McCLENDON, WELCH, AND HOLDRIDGE, JJ.

          McCLENDON, J.

         Plaintiff herein, Frank Vine, appeals a judgment rendered in favor of Teachers' Retirement System of Louisiana, the West Feliciana Parish School Board, and the Pointe Coupee Parish School Board. For the following reasons, we affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff herein, Frank Vine, was a Certified School Psychologist from 1983 through 2018. Mr. Vine was employed by various school systems in regular full-time positions for eleven years, from the summer of 1983 until the summer of 1994. During this time, Mr. Vine's employers remitted employee retirement withholdings and employer retirement contributions (collectively, "retirement contributions") to Teachers' Retirement System of Louisiana ("TRSL") on Mr. Vine's behalf. This full-time income was reported by IRS Form W-2.

         In August of 1994, Mr. Vine resigned from his full-time position as a school psychologist with the West Feliciana Parish School Board ("WFPSB"). Following this resignation, Mr. Vine contracted with WFPSB, Pointe Coupee Parish School Board ("PCPSB"), and St. Helena Parish School Board ("SHPSB") to provide school counseling services on a part-time basis. During this time from August 1994 - August 2006, no retirement contributions were made to TRSL on Mr. Vine's behalf. Mr. Vine's part-time income was reported on IRS Form 1099 ("1099 earnings").

         Mr. Vine became a full-time employee of PCPSB in August of 2006. Mr. Vine continued to work full-time for PCPSB until his retirement on January 22, 2014. PCPSB made appropriate retirement contributions to TRSL on Mr. Vine's behalf during this time.

         In December of 2009, while still working full-time for PCPSB, Mr. Vine contacted TRSL to inquire about potentially purchasing additional years of "service credit" pursuant to LSA-R.S. 11:158. While speaking with Martha Rosa of TRSL, the conversation turned to whether WFPSB, PCPSB, and SHPSB should have remitted retirement contributions on Mr. Vine's behalf for his 1099 earnings when he worked part-time. On the advice of Ms. Rosa, Mr. Vine collected records relative to the part-time work in question.

         Mr. Vine contacted Ms. Rosa again in March of 2010. Ms. Rosa directed him to Venetia Pitts (now Venetia Clark), who was then an Accounting Supervisor for TRSL. In a March 11, 2010 email to Ms. Pitts, Mr. Vine wrote that Ms. Rosa "had suggested that there was a possibility that the [p]arishes that I contracted [with] should have been paying retirement assessments on me, as I was a vested TRSL member by that time; however, she was not sure, and suggested I contact you." Ms. Pitts agreed to assist Mr. Vine in contacting WFPSB, PCPSB, and SHPSB regarding the issue. She contacted SHPSB first, on March 25, 2010. On October 22, 2010, Ms. Pitts confirmed to Mr. Vine that SHPSB had submitted retirement contributions for his 1099 earnings to his retirement account.

         Mr. Vine contacted WFPSB in September of 2010. He spoke with Helen B. Davis, who was then Supervisor of Finance and Management for WFPSB, and Karen Raby, who was then payroll specialist for WFPSB. In a letter dated November 10, 2010, Ms. Davis reported that WFPSB had researched Mr. Vine's request "that monies [he] earned under contract with [WFPSB] be submitted to [TRSL] as covered employment."[1] Attached documents reflected that WFPSB had determined it should have made employer retirement contributions in the amount of $19, 509.74 and should have withheld employee contributions in the amount of $10, 333.80 for Mr. Vine's part-time work for WFPSB, for a total retirement contribution amount of $29, 843.54. Ms. Davis requested that Mr. Vine submit his share of the contributions "due for the years of covered employment" to WFPSB, as Ms. Pitts had advised that WFPSB should collect Mr. Vine's contributions and submit them to TRSL together with WFPSB's contributions. Mr. Vine submitted his share of the retirement contributions to WFPSB as requested. In December of 2010, WFPSB deposited $29, 843.54 with TRSL for Mr. Vine's 1099 earnings.

         In December of 2010, Mr. Vine met with Linda D'Amico, then superintendent of PCPSB, and Bobbie Jarreau, then bookkeeper of PCPSB. PCPSB began looking into Mr. Vine's concerns.

         On January 3, 2011, Benjamin Foster, Accounting Manager of TRSL, informed Mr. Vine that TRSL was going to "reverse" the contribution payments that had been made by SHPSB and WFPSB. Following this conversation, Mr. Foster sent an email dated January 4, 2011 to Ms. Pitts and Dana Vicknair, Assistant Director of TRSL. In the email, Mr. Foster wrote:

[TRSL] initially communicated to Mr. Vine back in March 2010 that his 1099 earnings were reportable... Later in 2010, however, [TRSL] became aware that earnings derived solely as an independent contractor were not reportable to TRSL. Based on this, [TRSL] informed Mr. Vine that his earnings were not TRSL eligible.
[SHPSB] has reported their information to TRSL for Mr. Vine, [WFPSB] just reported and their data is being processed by Cost, and [PCPSB] has not reported but has indicated to us today that they would report if required to do so.

         On December 7, 2011, Mr. Vine instituted this lawsuit. On May 14, 2015, the trial court denied a motion for summary judgment filed by WFPSB. On November 19, 2015, the trial court denied Mr. Vine's motion for partial summary judgment as to the proper interpretation of Louisiana Administrative Code, Title 58, Part III, Chapter 2, § 201. On August 23, 2106, the trial court denied TRSL's exception of no cause of action, and also denied exceptions of prescription filed by TRSL, WFPSB, and PCPSB.

         A bench trial on the merits was held on April 3 and April 4, 2018. Rather than hearing oral arguments, the trial court requested post-trial memorandums or arguments. On June 28, 2018, the trial court issued written reasons for judgment, rendering judgment in favor of TRSL, WFPSB, and PCPSB, which provide in pertinent part:

At trial, the plaintiff had the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that at all times for which he claims the defendants were obligated to make contributions to his retirement that he was an employee of either a city or parish school board pursuant to the provisions of LSA-R.S. 11:701 et seq. After considering the totality of evidence submitted at trial, the court concludes that the plaintiff failed to meet his burden of proof on this essential element of his claim and for that reason, the court orders that a Judgment issue herein in favor of the defendants and against plaintiff.

         A final judgment dismissing all of Mr. Vine's claims against TRSL and WFPSB was executed on August 16, 2018. From this judgment, Mr. Vine appeals, raising the following assignments of error:

1. The trial court erred in failing to grant Mr. Vine's motion for partial summary judgment as to the defendants' liability and in failing properly to interpret the applicable law, the Louisiana Administrative Code, Title 58, Part III, Chapter 2, § 201, which required defendants to make retirement contributions on Mr. Vine's behalf even when he was a "nonemployee contractor." Specifically, the trial court erred in interpreting the law to require Mr. Vine to prove he was an employee of either a city or parish school board pursuant to the provisions of LSA-R.S. 11:701, et seq., in order for the defendants to be obligated to make contributions to his retirement.
2. Alternatively, the trial court erred in deciding that Mr. Vine failed to establish that he was an employee pursuant to LSA-R.S. 11:701, et seq., or was not otherwise a member of TRSL and entitled to contributions in light of LSA-R.S. 11:162, TRSL Louisiana Teacher Retirement Handbooks, and the Fishbein v. State ex rel. Louisiana State Univ. Health Scis. Ctr., 2004-2482 (La. 4/12/05), 898 So.2d 1260, 1262, decision, and all the relevant law regarding independent contractor versus employee status.

         FIRST ASSIGNMENT OF ERROR

         Standard of Review

         Mr. Vine alleges that the trial court erred in denying his motion for partial summary judgment regarding the interpretation of Section 201. Appellate courts review summary judgments de novo. Louisiana Horsemen's Benev. & Protective Ass'n 1993, Inc. v. Fair Grounds Corp., 2002-1928 (La. 4/9/03), 845 So.2d 1039, 1041. Mr. Vine also asserts that the trial court erred by interpreting LSA-R.S. 11:701 to require WFPSB and PCPSB to make retirement contributions on Mr. Vine's 1099 earnings only if Mr. Vine was an employee. Appellate courts review questions of law which involve statutory interpretation de novo. Tanana v. Tanana, 2012-1013 (La.App. 1 Or. 5/31/13), 140 So.3d 738, 742. Accordingly, this Court's review of this assignment of error is de novo. See Billeaudeau v. Opelousas Gen. Hosp. Auth., 2016-0846 (La. 10/19/16), 218 So.3d 513, 520.

         Applicable Law

         Louisiana Administrative Code Title 58, Part III, Chapter 2, § 201, entitled "Earnable Compensation Accounts" ("Section 201"), provides:

A. Earnable compensation shall not include compensation paid to an active member or to an inactive member of Teachers' Retirement System of Louisiana (TRSL) if the compensation is paid by a secondary employer and is reported to the Internal Revenue ...

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