Hoover Co. retirees overwhelmingly rejected a proposed settlement in their lawsuit over lifetime health care benefits.
About 500 former Hoover employees recently met to learn more about a potential settlement that would end their lengthy legal battle that began in U.S. District Court and is now before the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
"We gave a presentation on both sides of the case," said local attorney Brian Zimmerman, who has been involved from the onset. Also attending the meeting were Pittsburgh attorneys who also represent retirees during the extended litigation.
Former officials with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1985 attended, including former longtime union president and business manager Jim Repace, who has been heavily involved in the health care issue concerning Whirlpool.
Former union officials Chris Koehler and Jim Gensley assisted Repace in coordinating the meeting and providing information to the affected retirees.
The group decided not to resolve the case and will await a decision in the Sixth Circuit.
Financial details of the proposal are not available in court records and Zimmerman said he wasn't permitted to discuss them. The parties had asked the appellate court to refrain from issuing a decision during settlement talks.
Zimmerman, citing past legal decisions in the Sixth Circuit and U.S. Supreme Court regarding collective-bargaining contracts and health care benefits, said he explained to the retirees it was possible Whirlpool could win the appeal and the former workers potentially could end up with no Hoover-related medical benefits.
He wanted them to know that "moving forward there are a lot of risks and unknowns and sometimes it's better to settle a case to avoid that."
However, the attorney said he understands the sacrifices the former employees made in past contract negotiations in exchange for the benefits that are vital during their retirement years.
"We will continue to represent them in the fullest as lawyers," Zimmerman said. "We always have an obligation to present a settlement offer when it's made because it's the clients' case. The client should know what's in favor of settlement and not in favor and let them decide."
Settlement talks in the Cincinnati-based Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals follow earlier legal victories by the retirees. Zimmerman estimated that 1,300 to 1,500 retirees will be affected.
The former workers retired from Hoover and its successors, Maytag and Whirlpool, during a 27-year period.
In 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Benita Y. Pearson in Youngstown ruled that more than 1,000 people who retired from the former North Canton company were entitled to health care benefits for life.
Pearson also ruled in favor of the retirees after a second trial in which the central issue was whether Whirlpool could alter the health care benefits. Whirlpool appealed.
Whirlpool acquired Hoover during a 2006 merger with Maytag, which purchased Hoover in 1989. Whirlpool sold the Hoover business to Techtronic Industries but agreed to fund future retiree liabilities.
In 2011, Whirlpool notified retirees it planned to reduce health care benefits and reserved the right to terminate them.
Retirees responded with the federal lawsuit, arguing the benefits were included in collective-bargaining agreements and could not legally be reduced or taken away.
In 2017, Pearson again ruled in favor of the retirees on the lifetime health benefits issue, denying a request by Whirlpool to overturn her previous ruling.