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Federal judge rules against Sonoma County retirees

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought by Sonoma County government retirees over a controversial rollback in contributions to their health care premiums.

The Sonoma County Association of Retired Employees claimed in a lawsuit last year that the county reneged on a contractual promise in 2008 when it began forcing retirees to pay an increasing share of premium costs.

The rollback, which also affects current employees and eventually will reduce county contributions to retiree health care to $500 a month, went against previous county pledges to pay "substantially all of the cost" of employee medical benefits during retirement, the association claimed.

But U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken in San Francisco said the association, which represents about 1,500 former county workers, failed to show that the county agreed to provide retirees with health care benefits in perpetuity.

The association "has not identified any specific Sonoma County resolution or ordinance that granted its members this purported vested right" to health care benefits, Wilken wrote in her decision last week.

It followed an earlier court order in May that dismissed the original complaint but allowed the association to file an amended complaint with documentation of its claims.

"This validated for us that we had the authority to do what we did," Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Valerie Brown said of the restructured medical benefits.

Association president Carol Bauer said the group plans to appeal.

She said Wilken shortchanged the value of "implied contracts," identified as job postings and memoranda of understanding with employees, that the group claims promised retirees lifelong health care benefits.

"We have some good points and (the case) needs to be looked at in the broader context," Bauer said.

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