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Easley v. Public Employees' Retirement System

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

January 17, 2017

CHARLES D. EASLEY APPELLANT
v.
PUBLIC EMPLOYEES' RETIREMENT SYSTEM APPELLEE

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 06/02/2015

         HINDS COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT FIRST JUDICIAL DISTRICT HON. WINSTON L. KIDD TRIAL JUDGE

         AFFIRMED

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: JEFFREY CARTER SMITH COURTNEY BRADFORD SMITH.

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL BY: JANE L. MAPP.

          BEFORE LEE, C.J., BARNES AND ISHEE, JJ.

          BARNES, J.

         ¶1. Charles D. Easley, a former Mississippi Supreme Court justice, requested Public Employees' Retirement System (PERS) benefits from 1986 through 2000 for work he performed as a court-appointed attorney in the Lowndes County Chancery Court.[1] Following an administrative hearing before the PERS Board of Trustee's Claims Committee, the Board denied the request for service credit, finding that Justice Easley was an independent contractor and no employee-employer relationship had been established. He filed an appeal with the Hinds County Circuit Court, First Judicial District, which affirmed the Board's decision. Finding no abuse of discretion in the Board's denial of PERS benefits, we affirm the judgment.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. From 1986 to 2000, Justice Easley served as a court-appointed attorney in Lowndes County Chancery Court, representing indigent respondents in commitment proceedings. The chancery court's order appointing Justice Easley stated that he was "entitled to a monthly salary of $450.00 . . . for services rendered to the Court and [his] respective indigent clients." It was noted in the order that this amount had been approved by the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors. This document was the only evidence of his appointment. Justice Easley maintained a private law practice during this period, and the chancery clerk assigned him cases on an individual basis.

         ¶3. After Justice Easley left the Mississippi Supreme Court in 2008, he contacted PERS to inquire whether he was eligible for benefits during the period he served as a court-appointed attorney (1986 through 2000). PERS had no record of his service during that period and was unable to find any documentation from the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors that Justice Easley had been hired as a county employee. His earnings were reported on an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Form 1099-MISC for the years 1986-1998. But for unexplained reasons, in 1999 and 2000, Lowndes County classified Justice Easley as a part-time employee "not working 80 or more hours per month, " and his earnings were reported on an IRS W-2 form for those two years. Although he admittedly received health-insurance benefits through Lowndes County, the evidence was inconclusive who paid the premiums. At the hearing, he testified that he was "not sure" if he had paid them. Regardless, none of Justice Easley's Lowndes County earnings were ever reported to PERS, and he never contributed to the system.

         ¶4. In a letter dated June 17, 2009, the executive director of PERS informed Justice Easley that he was considered an independent contractor and, therefore, not eligible for benefits. Justice Easley appealed the decision to the Board, and a hearing was held on January 25, 2011. The Board subsequently determined that Justice Easley was not eligible for PERS membership related to his appointment by the Lowndes County Chancery Court, and it denied his request for service credit for those years. The Hinds County Circuit Court affirmed the Board's decision, and Justice Easley now appeals to this Court.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Whether PERS's decision to deny benefits was ...


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