Singing River Health

SRHS legal showdown ends in $150 million-plus settlement

TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD 
 Members of Singing River Health System's pension plan join hands and pray before entering the federal courthouse in Gulfport on Monday, May 16, 2016, for a hearing on a proposed class-action settlement involving their retirement benefits. A federal judge approved the settlement Thursday.
TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD Members of Singing River Health System's pension plan join hands and pray before entering the federal courthouse in Gulfport on Monday, May 16, 2016, for a hearing on a proposed class-action settlement involving their retirement benefits. A federal judge approved the settlement Thursday.

GULFPORT -- More than 200 feisty retirees wanted to pursue lawsuits against Singing River Health System over its failed pension plan, but U.S. District Court Judge Louis Guirola Jr. has signed off on a settlement proposed by attorneys for other pension-plan members.

The settlement applies to all 3,173 current and former employees who participated in the pension plan, including those who opposed it.

Under the settlement, SRHS will put into the pension $55 million it failed to pay from 2009-14, while plan members thought the contributions were being made.

The payment will amount to a total of $150 million because it is being stretched over 35 years and includes interest. Jackson County, which owns the health system, has agreed to contribute $13 million for indigent care at SRHS, freeing up health system funds for pension payments.

SRHS also will pay $6.4 million in legal fees over four years to attorneys who represented pension-plan members in reaching the settlement.

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Guirola reasoned in an opinion filed Thursday that the settlement beat prolonged litigation that came with no guarantee of success for pension-plan members.

"The purpose of settlement is to avoid the trial of sharply contested issues of fact," Guirola wrote. "It also dispenses with wasteful, prolonged and often expensive litigation. A fair class-action settlement is not a settlement that is perfect or that the judge would necessarily have personally determined acceptable."

The settlement releases SRHS and its owner, Jackson County, from liability over the failed pension. SRHS can present the federal settlement in state court and ask for dismissal of more than 150 lawsuits pending against it.

Guirola's job was to consider whether the settlement was fair, reasonable and adequate based on evidence presented over the course of a two-day trial by class counsel Jim Reeves of Biloxi, representing those who wanted to settle, and attorneys Earl Denham and Harvey Barton, whose 204 clients opposed it.

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