Bernice Tillett taught for decades in the Anne Arundel County and Washington, D.C. school districts, helping prepare countless local students for graduation and a career of their choice that could help lead them to a secure future.
When Tillett retired in 1982, she and those who know her were convinced she had not only accomplished her mission as an English teacher, but a generous pension from the District of Columbia Teachers’ Retirement Plan would secure her golden years.
However, last month, Pennsylvania Avenue called with some disturbing – if not insensitive – news for the now-91-year-old former educator.
“My mom is feeling stressed out as our elders tend to become when they receive news like this,” said her son, the Rev. Stephen Tillett, pastor of Asbury Broadneck United Methodist Church and the president of the Anne Arundel County chapter of the NAACP.
Tillett said on Nov. 9, his elderly mother received a letter from the Department of Treasury Office of D.C. Pensions [ODCP] in Northwest notifying her that they intend to collect an overpayment of benefits she received from the District of Columbia Teachers’ Retirement Plan.
What’s more, the letter stated that the overpayment is the result of administrative errors that were made by the District in the original calculation of Tillett’s benefit when she retired 33 years ago.
“I find it unconscionable that in 2015, 33 years after her retirement, that her peace of mind is being disturbed in order for ODCP to recoup money from an error they made,” the reverend said.
The ODCP said the debt totals more than $6,000 and they plan to reduce by $660.40 per month her retirement benefits, leaving the retired 91-year-old very little on which to live.
Several messages left for ODCP were not returned.
“Our retired teachers should be aware of this injustice and have a portal for sharing their stories,” Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington’s Teachers’ Union, said in an email.
Bruce Friedland, a spokesman for the Internal Revenue Service, said while he couldn’t comment on Tillett’s or any other specific case, the IRS is always willing to sit down with a plan provider who has made mistakes.
He said there’s precedent where a plan provider comes in and acknowledges a mistake and they go over options in recouping the funds, including options that won’t burden a pension recipient.
“It’s not rare when these mistakes occur,” Friedland said. “The plan [in this case ODCP] has some discretion on how to solve their problem.”
Tillett isn’t alone.
Sallie Letterlough retired as a teacher in 1995 and later was told that she owed $22,000 because of a pension payment error. She said after meeting with her local congress office and loads of paperwork, she’s been able to whittle down the debt to $8,000 for which she’s trying to get a waiver.
“It’s been a nightmare,” Letterlough said. “I really sympathize with [Tillett]. It’s such a long process with so much paperwork involved and the process is far from over and so complicated.”
Ed Cochran started receiving a monthly pension check from his union in 1995. Two decades later, he too received a letter saying the fund was mistakenly overpaying him and demanded he repay $66,721.
“I literally thought I was going to have a heart attack. How was I going to come up with $67,000? I didn’t sleep all night,” Cochran told CNNMoney.
The pension fund said it miscalculated his benefit. It was paying him $1,319 a month, which was $262 more than he was owed. Cochran was never told the correct amount so he had no reason to believe the checks he was getting were too much. Not only does he have to repay what he wasn’t owed, but the fund wants the interest back, too.
Cochran is just one of 589 retirees overpaid by the Chicago-based Sheet Metal Workers Local Union No. 73 pension fund. It found the mistakes during an audit in 2010, and it began trying to recoup the $5 million it overpaid over the course of 40 years.
It’s unclear why the fund waited five years to go after the money. An attorney for the union did not respond to requests for comment.
Cochran and seven other retirees filed a lawsuit, asking that the fund waive the repayment charges and continue to pay them their deserved pension benefits.
“I’ve never heard of another case where someone completely innocent is required to pay back tens of thousands of dollars,” said attorney Tim Kelly who is representing the retirees.
Similarly, Tillett said he wants his mother’s debt to be waived and noted that it’s unreasonable and untimely to request she pay it back after 33 years.
“I shudder to think what the other octogenarian or nonagenarian recipients of the demand letter must be going through who don’t have younger relatives or friends to advocate on their behalf,” Tillett said.
Bernice Tillett taught for 36 years from 1946 to 1982 at three different schools, including Roosevelt Senior High School in Northwest. She began her career in Anne Arundel County from 1946-52 and then returned to the District until her retirement.
“She was an English teacher par excellence and still edits and proofreads to this day,” her son said.
“She is stressed out and unnerved by the demand from the Department of the Treasury Office of DC Pensions and finds it to be grossly unfair, inappropriate and wrongheaded.”
Tillett said everyone makes mistakes and must live with the consequences of those errors.
“I would suggest, rather than troubling senior citizens who were good and faithful employees of the D.C. Public Schools years ago to cover their errors, that they just, as her grandson would say, ‘Charge it to the game’ and ensure that they don’t make this kind of error again with future annuitants,” he said.