Judge Neil Harris takes over SRHS pension fund case

Judge Neil Harris takes over SRHS pension fund case

GEORGE COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - The fate of the Singing River Health System retirement plan is still up in the air following a strange turn of events Monday afternoon. The original judge in the case, Jaye Bradley, recused herself and was replaced by Judge Neil Harris.

Bradley held a hearing in the case Monday morning and left in place a temporary restraining order preventing the liquidation of the fund. At a second hearing Monday afternoon in George County, Harris agreed with Bradley that the temporary order should remain in effect. He also set another hearing date for this Friday morning at nine in Pascagoula. That hearing will determine if the temporary restraining order should be made permanent.

The retirement plan is teetering on the edge of insolvency because it's underfunded by $140 million. The only thing certain right now is that system officials cannot continue to dismantle the retirement plan, at least for the time being.

At Monday's first hearing, SRHS attorney Roy Williams argued that the properly named notices had not been served, and efforts to stop the termination of the retirement system was a moot point, since that process began on November 30th.

Attorneys for the plaintiff, a system retiree named Cynthia Almond, didn't see it that way.

"At no time has the word termination been used in any disclosures by the hospital," Harvey Barton explained. "They've used words like liquidate and frozen and those types of things."

Attorneys said efforts to save the retirement system are critically important. "If they terminate this plan, whether the money is owed or not, the employer will no longer owe any monies, period, it will be over. And we know that is what they are trying to do," Barton added.

Plaintiff attorneys also say the entire process has been shrouded in secrecy. "Frankly, I don't think the hospital has been forthcoming in telling everybody what it is. And there's no doubt that they have had months, if not years to plan this activity. They knew this day of reckoning was coming."

Attorneys for Singing River Health System left the George County courthouse before we could reach out to them for comment. However, hospital officials did issue a written statement, which said in part, "The judge, we believe, properly continued the hearing, and when a date is set, we will present our case. Regrettably, this has caused us to postpone our town hall meetings with retirees and other former employees."

Copyright 2014 WLOX. All rights reserved.