An Ottawa lawyer is attempting to certify a federal class action lawsuit over government pension errors. An estimated 250,000 employees and retirees, mainly women, are affected by mistakes in calculating benefits, according to a Federal Court application.
“The government screwed up the records for women who went on maternity leave dating from the 1990s,” said lawyer Eric Letts of Letts Law. “We’re fairly confident it’s global and, if it’s not all women, it’s most of them.”
Letts in a Court application alleges the public works department responsible for pension benefits credited employees with pensionable earnings they never had, then provided retirees with misleading estimates of expected benefits. “I’ve been on this file for a year-and-a-half, and through Access To Information we found out they knew about the mistake but just said, ‘Screw it, we’ll figure it out later,’” said Letts.
Letts estimated damages of $15,000 to $50,000 for a quarter-million federal employees and retirees. “This never could happen in the private sector,” said Letts. “The government has made these errors on the records of people on maternity leave in the 1990s and they don’t have a system to fix it.”
Laura Prevost, an Ottawa retiree and lead plaintiff in the case, worked as a federal employee from 1986 to 2015. In a Court application, Prevost explained that supervisors credited her for pension payments she never made while on maternity leave and other absences from work.
“Unknown to her at the time, the government had a practice of reporting pension contributions to the Canada Revenue Agency as if she, and other women, had contributed to their pensions all year despite the fact they did not make such contributions,” Prevost’s lawyer wrote the Court.
Prevost said she even requested an audit in 2003 after suspecting her pension contributions “seemed incorrect”, but was assured no accounting error occurred. Only on retirement did Prevost learn her actual benefits were lower than promised.
“There is no recourse,” said Attorney Letts. “You have to sue them or just put up with it.”
Court documents include staff emails obtained by Letts through Access To Information in which officials admitted to errors. “It is best not to discuss any of this with the plan member for the moment,” said a 2016 email. “A complete review is required.”
Letts seeks to certify a class action lawsuit on behalf of “all current or former female employees” from the 1990s who took leave without pay to have children, care for relatives or relocate with a spouse. “These women suffer damages from relying on the misinformation respecting their pension information when they are making decisions for common life events such as divorce and retirement,” Letts wrote the Court.
Letts noted women employees who took unpaid leave typically opted out of pension payments temporarily “based on the ethos of the times, that women were more likely to remain off work to attend to child care; a woman’s income was secondary to her husband’s income; and other such gender-based assumptions.”
The public works department does not comment on pending litigation.
By Jason Unrau