The Lead

The wrong font, misplaced staples leads to unusual court rebuke of Pa. teachers’ pension fund

By: - August 26, 2021 9:43 am

A state appellate court told Pennsylvania’s teachers’ pension system, and its well-paid outside legal counsel, to take a mulligan on a legal filing over the staples and font sizes they used in a brief filed last week.

The two-page order, issued by the Commonwealth Court in a case between a sitting state senator and the pension system over transparency issues, made legal observers scratch their heads.

“I have never seen it before,” Duquesne University law professor, and state court watcher, Bruce Ledewitz said. “That could be because lawyers comply with the rules.” Ledewitz also is a Capital-Star opinion contributor. 

The order states that a brief filed on behalf of the Public School Employees Retirement System — a $63 billion fund that pays the pensions of hundreds of thousands of teachers — “does not comply with the Pennsylvania Rules of Appellate Procedure because the lettering in the brief is smaller than 14 point in the text.”

The order adds that “the brief further does not comply with the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

because the brief is not bound along the left side … Moreover, to the extent the brief may be bound with staples, said staples should be covered.”

PSERS’ attorneys were given a week to fix the issues and file it again, or be “precluded from filing a brief.”

The brief was filed in the opening stages of a legal fight between PSERS and one of its own board members, state Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery. Muth filed the suit in June after she said she was denied information on the fund’s “investments, practices, and management.”

“These are the dollars of hardworking teachers, school employees and taxpayers, they should know how every dollar is spent and how it was allocated,” Muth said in a statement at the time.

The pension has been the center of controversy lately. The FBI is currently investigating land purchases the fund made in Harrisburg. The fund also had to decertify its returns earlier this year due to an accounting error that led school districts, not teachers, to pay increased contributions.

The system cited the ongoing internal and external investigations on these matters to deny Muth access to documents, the Associated Press reported

In a statement at the time, PSERS’ board chair Chris SantaMaria, who is named in Muth’s lawsuit, said that such “costly and protracted litigation depletes the very funds that this Board is meant to protect.”

“A public dispute pitting Board members against each other leaves no victor and distracts from the more pressing inquiry such as enhancing returns for System members,” the statement added.

To handle these ongoing inquiries, the pension fund had brought on three outside law firms, plus an independent financial adviser, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. 

Among those firms are Philadelphia-based Morgan Lewis and New York-based Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, who are working on the Muth case, according to court records.

As of May, the pension has paid more than $1 million in fees for those services, though the Inquirer’s total does not include fees from either Morgan Lewis or Pillsbury. 

According to contracts, Morgan Lewis’ attorneys and paralegals will make between $410 and $1,210 an hour for their services — a discount on their usual rate.

The firm has already billed PSERS $19,995 for 23 hours of work — or roughly $869 an hour — in early April. Subsequent expenses are not publicly noted in Pennsylvania’s online contract portal.

No bills for Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman are yet listed in the portal. But a contract signed in June lists hourly rates for the firms’ employees between $494 to $925 an hour. Those rates are, like Morgan Lewis, discounted.

A spokesperson for PSERS declined to comment on the court’s order. Spokespersons for Morgan Lewis and Pillsbury also did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.