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Richardson v. Board of Pension Trustees

Supreme Court of Delaware

August 29, 2017

A. BRAD RICHARDSON, Defendant Below, Appellant,
BOARD OF PENSION TRUSTEES, Plaintiff Below, Appellee.

          Submitted: August 23, 2017

         Court Below-Superior Court of the State of Delaware C.A. S16A-02-002

          Before VALIHURA, SEITZ, and TRAYNOR, Justices.


          Gary F. Traynor Justice.

         This 29th day of August, 2017, upon consideration of the parties' briefs and the record on appeal, it appears to the Court that:

         (1) The appellant, A. Brad Richardson, filed this appeal from a Superior Court decision upholding the Board of Pension Trustee's (the "Board's") denial of his request that the vesting period for his State pension be shortened from ten to five years. Richardson claims that, in reliance upon statements on the Office of Pensions ("OPen") website that State employees are eligible for a service pension at age 62 if at that time they have five years of credited service, he resigned from a position in the private sector and accepted a job with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control ("DNREC"). After accepting the DNREC position in late 2013, Richardson learned that the information on the OPen website was incorrect and that the vesting period had been changed to ten years as of January 2012. It is undisputed that, at the time of Richardson's hiring, the erroneous vesting information remained on the OPen website, but there was also evidence that the correct information appeared at other locations on the website.

         (2) Richardson contends that the Board, by virtue of the clear statement on the OPen website and his reliance thereon, is estopped from applying the five-year vesting period to him. The Board rejected this argument, concluding that Richardson did not rely solely on the website and that his purported reliance was not detrimental. The Superior Court held that the Board's conclusions were supported by substantial evidence in the record and free from legal error and therefore affirmed the Board's denial of Richardson' request. We agree with the Superior Court and affirm.

         (3) Effective January 1, 2012, the General Assembly revised the State Employees' Pension Plan to increase the pension vesting period of employees hired after January 1, 2012 from five to ten years.[1] Unfortunately, the State neglected to update various pages appearing on its pension and new-employee websites.

         (4) In late 2013, Richardson, then 57 years old and an employee of Tidewater Utilities, began the search for a new job that might make it easier for him to retire at age 62. He hoped to find a job that had a pension package with a "fairly short" vesting period, "like five years."[2] As part of this search, he reviewed the State of Delaware website and learned-or so he thought-that the State Employees' Pension Plan allowed for vesting at age 62 after five years of credited service. He then interviewed for two State positions and was offered a spot as an environmental scientist with DNREC at an annual salary of $44, 094, a 33% increase over his $33, 000 annual Tidewater salary. Not surprisingly, Richardson accepted the DNREC offer. He testified, however, that "the single most important criterion" supporting his decision to leave Tidewater and join DNREC was not the substantial salary increase but "the promise of a pension with a short vesting period-five years."[3]

         (5) Richardson's belief that the relevant vesting period was five years was not whimsical. Before he interviewed with DNREC, he consulted the OPen website where he read that the vesting period was five years. He testified that, at the end of each of his two interviews, he asked about the State's pension benefits and on both occasions was referred to the State's website which he then "double-check[ed]."[4]Again, he saw that the vesting period was five years. After accepting the DNREC position and being directed to the "online new employee orientation course, " Richardson once again encountered the erroneous statement that he would be eligible for his pension upon reaching age 62 with five years of credited service.

         (6) Shortly after Richardson started at DNREC in late November of 2013, he first learned during a conversation with a friend whose husband was a state employee that he might be mistaken in believing that the State's pension vesting period was five years. The friend told Richardson that she thought there was a ten-year vesting requirement. Rather than ask a human-resources representative at DNREC to clarify the issue, Richardson once again went to the State of Delaware website and saw that the vesting period was five years. He printed the page and put it in his "file."

         (7) In April of 2014, Richardson attended an OPen pension workshop. He testified that, "even though [he] knew [he] wasn't eligible [for a pension] for another four and a half years, [he] was curious to hear what they had to say so [he] went."[5]During the workshop, he learned that his friend was right and that what he had seen on the State website was wrong; in fact, his eligibility for a pension was subject to a ten-year vesting requirement. This prompted him to contact his immediate supervisor and a DNREC human resources supervisor to whom he showed screenshots of the website pages he claimed to have relied upon, and announced his expectation that the State would "honor the promise under which he accepted [the DNREC] job."[6] A few months later he enlisted the assistance of his State representative and, when that was unavailing, sought relief from the State Pension Administrator. Specifically, he asked the Administrator "to apply a five year vesting period for pension eligibility to him."[7] When the Administrator denied his request, Richardson appealed to the Board, arguing that the State was administratively estopped from applying the five-year vesting period. The Board rejected this contention, principally because "[it was] not persuaded that Mr. Richardson relied solely upon the incorrect webpage, or that he relied to his detriment, given the nearly 30% increase in salary he earned in the DNREC job." The Superior Court affirmed.

         (8) On appeal from a Superior Court decision affirming a decision of an administrative agency, our function "is, in effect a replication of that performed by the Superior Court."[8] Absent an abuse of discretion, the agency's decision must be affirmed.[9] Our review is limited to a determination of whether the agency's decision was supported by substantial evidence on the record before the agency and free from legal error.[10] Substantial evidence has been defined to mean "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and less than a preponderance."[11]

         (9) Although Richardson now contends that the Board and the Superior Court committed "legal error" by "disregarding the uncontroverted evidence . . . which demonstrates that Richardson has established a valid administrative estoppel claim, "[12] in reality he is challenging the Board's finding that the ...

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