Court upholds order to pay former NIB director benefits

By Fay Simmons

Tribune Business Reporter

An Appeal Court Justice yesterday upheld an order for the National Insurance Board (NIB) to pay a former director pension benefits after losing a legal battle over her due retirement entitlement.

Justice Milton Evans, Justice Indira Charles and Justice Bernard Turner yesterday upheld an April 2023 ruling that Rowena Bethel would receive $8,206.58 monthly paid from her contract termination in 2016, which means she is presently due some 91 outstanding pension payouts worth a collective $746,796 by Tribune Business calculations.

The appeal however, determined that NIB is entitled to retain the $25,684 Ms Bethel made in contributions via monthly salary deductions plus some $130,217 paid by the Office of the Prime Minister to “bridge” her pension.

The ruling also determined that NIB will pay Ms Bethel interest at the statutory rate from the date of judgment to the date of payment and the cost of her legal fees.

Justice Diane Stewart’s ruling last year, found that NIB “negligently misrepresented” to Ms Bethel that she could participate in its staff pension plan as “an inducement” to encourage her to sign a three-year contract to become its most senior executive in July 2013.

The verdict recorded how Ms Bethel “made clear” to ex-prime minister Perry Christie, and then-minister responsible for NIB, Shane Gibson, that taking the top job at the social security system depended on her receiving an NIB pension. However, it was only after she chose not to renew her contract - following “a breakdown in her relationship with key individuals at NIB” - that Ms Bethel was told she was not entitled to any pension payouts.

This was because the NIB pension scheme’s rules stipulated that persons on a fixed-term contract such as Ms Bethel, who was formerly the Ministry of Finance’s in-house legal adviser, did not qualify for any pension entitlement. Ms Bethel, asserting that she was never informed of this prior to agreeing to become NIB’s chief executive, initiated legal action seeking damages for “breach of contract or, alternatively, misrepresentation” after she received no pension for seven years.

Justice Stewart, in finding for Ms Bethel, awarded her damages equivalent to the monthly $8,207 payment she had chosen to receive as pension benefits upon her departure.

Ms Bethel alleged that NIB made monthly $713.44 deductions from her salary as pension contributions after she signed a three-year deal to become its top executive on July 31, 2013. In March and April 2015, she was purportedly enrolled in the staff pension scheme that was managed by CFAL and provided with a pension account.

Enrollment in the scheme was said to have been critical because of a medical condition that Ms Bethel faced, and her need to financially plan for the future because of it. The pension was “a key reason for her accepting employment with NIB, as it allowed her access to the scheme in order to meet anticipated medical care costs for the condition”, and this was made clear to all prior to her signing the contract.

Ms Bethel decided not to renew her initial three-year contract upon its expiry due to a combination of “deteriorating health” and breakdown in relationships with other key NIB staff. Her departure was mutually agreed, and she received a letter on July 13, 2016, saying her pension benefit was being calculated.

NIB then write to her again on September 20, 2016, giving her two choices by which to receive payment - a monthly $8,207 payment or a $282,913 initial lump sum followed by lower monthly payments of $6,616. Ms Bethel chose the first but it was only after she wrote to NIB on October 22, 2016, saying she had received no payments that she was informed her fixed-term contract made her ineligible for an NIB pension.

After the Minnis administration took office, Ms Bethel alleged she met twice with Brensil Rolle, the then-new NIB minister, in a bid to resolve the matter. She was told at the second meeting he had spoken to Father James Moultrie, NIB chairman during Ms Bethel’s tenure, and then-chair of the Public Service Commission, who “assured” she was entitled to an NIB pension and that he had given the necessary instructions for this.

NIB, though, rejected her claim and argued that she “accepts she is not eligible for participation in the pension plan”. Ms Bethel, though, argued that it was “a clear, factual warranty” that she was entitled to participate by virtue of clause 15 in her contract, which stipulated: “You are eligible for participation in the Board’s occupational pension plan.”