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Judge Hears Request for Lifetime Health Care

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) - A federal judge Thursday asked both sides to clear up their arguments during a hearing on whether Sonoma County cheated retirees out of promised lifetime health care.

The Sonoma County Association of Retired Employees (SCARE) - a group of about 1,400 retirees - sued the county after it decided in 2008 to cap healthcare benefits for retirees at $500 per month, rather than the lifetime health care the retires say they were promised.

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled in January 2014 that the county promised the care only to unionized, retired employees who were hired after 1990.

But in April this year Wilken changed her mind after SCARE produced more than 500,000 pages of discovery documents that demonstrate the county's intent to provide pre-1990 hires with retirement medical benefits "at least as favorable" as those for post-1990 hires, and she agreed to reconsider the association's claims.

At this week's hearing, however, Wilken suggested that SCARE should whittle down its causes of action to simply breach of contract.

"Otherwise we'll have to instruct a jury on five different theories," Wilken said. "So somebody's going to have to figure that out sometime."

Wilken asked both sides about what a baffling phrase in the agreement at issue, which mandates that medical benefits for retirees be provided in the same manner or on the same basis "as is done at the time" for other retirees.

"What does that mean?" she asked. "Now? In 1990? In 2010? When the person retires?"

Raymond Lynch, representing the county, said he believed the phrase referred to 1989, when the agreement at issue was drafted.

Darin Ranahan, representing SCARE, said he interpreted it to mean 1990, when the agreement took effect.

Lynch agreed with Wilken that it is primarily a contract case, since SCARE's case "rises and falls on whether or not there's a contract or promise."

For SCARE to succeed on its claims, Lynch said, "unmistakable intent has to be found."

"Here there is a lack of any such evidence," he said. Lynch said SCARE had produced no evidence from proceedings of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in 1989, on which evidence he said the case rests.

Lynch said SCARE must cite "clear and unmistakable language that there was an intent to provide lifetime healthcare benefits" to all retired employees in 1989 for its case to be plausible.

Both parties sought summary judgment. Wilken gave no indication how she planned to rule.

Lynch is with Hanson Bridgett Marcus Vlahos & Rudy, in San Francisco.

Ranahan is with Lewis Feinberg Lee & Jackson, in Oakland.

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