Attorney discusses winning pension benefit argument

By Angela Underwood | Jul 31, 2017

SAN FRANCISCO – Fighting strongly for benefits is what Kirsten Scott does, and she does it at a high level.

SAN FRANCISCO – Fighting strongly for benefits is what Kirsten Scott does, and she does it at a high level.

The Northern California Rising Star from 2014-2016, and principal attorney with Renaker Hassleman Scott, LLP, out of San Francisco, recently told The Northern California Record about her winning argument on behalf of a surviving spouse.

When separated wife and plaintiff Marianne Irvin, whose was rightful pension benefits were being rejected by the Contra Costa County Employees‘ Retirement Association (CCCERA) after her husband’s death, Scott succeeded in getting them back. “As was the case for Marianne and Richard Irvin, many couples who legally separate understand that their separation will not interfere with the surviving spouse’s right to survivor pension benefits,” Scott said of the First District Court of Appeal's June 30 ruling.

“Thus, the Irvin decision is significant for other surviving spouses who are similarly situated to Ms. Irvin because it protects their right to benefits to which they are legally entitled, and that they have reasonably counted on receiving during their retirement years.”

Scott, a contributing author to the "California Wage and Hour: Law and Litigation Practice Guide and Employee Benefits Law," said it was not a surprise when the defendants argued the Marriage of Burson in the fight to withhold pension benefits from the separated wife.

“We expected that respondents would encourage the court in this case to reach a similar decision as the court in Marriage of Burson, because the court in that case also looked to the Probate Code's definition of "surviving spouse" to interpret the County Employees Retirement Law, which is unrelated to the Probate Code,” she said.

“The Court of Appeal in the Irvin case correctly held that the Probate Code’s definition of surviving spouse does not control survivor pension benefits under the CERL, and that legally separated spouses such as Marianne and Richard Irvin are surviving spouses under CERL section 31760.2,” Scott added.  

Moving the Marriage of Burson aside for the better argument of Yamaha Corp. of America v. State Board. of Equalization 1998, Scott said the appeals court acknowledging the almost two-decade old old case was significant to the ruling. 

“The case of Yamaha deals with the issue of how much deference a court should give a governmental agency’s decision – in this case, CCCERA’s interpretation of the statute as precluding survivor benefits to legally separated spouses. In Yamaha, the California Supreme Court held that a court is to give deference to a governmental agency’s decision that is “appropriate to the circumstances,” she said.

“Where at issue is the interpretation of a statute, such as in the Irvin case, this is ultimately an issue for the judiciary," she added. Applying Yamaha, the Court of Appeal correctly gave “due consideration” to CCCERA’s interpretation of the statute, but did not defer to the CCCERA’s interpretation of the statute,” she said.

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