Cole County Presiding Circuit Judge Pat Joyce on Friday approved a $21 million settlement in the 12-year-old lawsuit over Missouri's Blind Pension Fund.
"We're done," she said at the end of a half-hour hearing, although she still will have to approve a form that's being developed by the two sides as part of the settlement.
The legal battle involved payments from a fund established in the 1920s to provide an annual pension for Missouri residents who are blind, have lived in the state at least a year and meet specific eligibility requirements.
Gov. Eric Greitens' office last week said the fund currently pays about $738 a month to each recipient.
The original lawsuit was filed Feb. 16, 2006, by the Missouri Council of the Blind and some pensioners who argued they had been underpaid since 1992 — and had spent years trying to get the state to give them what they were owed.
Defendants in the lawsuit have been the state's Family Services Division and the Social Services Department's director.
Last October, Joyce ordered the state to pay $26,312,279 — including pre-judgment and post-judgment interest.
In that same order, she said the underpayments and interest had totaled $19,672,492, as of June 30, 2012 — the last day of the 2011-12 state business year — but the ongoing legal battle had raised that by nearly $6.4 million.
Although the lawsuit complained the too-small payments began in 1994, the state appeals court in Kansas City ruled in 2010 that a statute of limitations required the damages payments to be calculated only for the five years before the lawsuit was filed — starting in February 2001.
And the underpayments ended in 2010, when the formula was adjusted after the court case had begun.
Three witnesses testified Friday the proposed, $21 million settlement was a good deal, and no one asked the court to block the agreement.
Throughout the case's 12-year history, it has listed Linda Gerken, of Hughesville, as the lead plaintiff.
She told Joyce on Friday she was a member of the committee that negotiated the settlement with the state's Division of Family Services, which oversees the fund.
And, Gerken testified, she supported the settlement because "the payments will come more quickly."
Christopher Grey, executive director of the St. Louis-based Missouri Council of the Blind, testified there were "two main reasons" for asking Joyce to approve the settlement.
"It brings the case to a close," he said. "Members of the class will be paid much sooner."
MCB President Dennis Huff, of St. Clair, also served on the negotiating committee.
"We have come up with what we feel is a satisfactory settlement," Huff told Joyce.
Huff and Grey said no one complained to them about the settlement proposal — although some were concerned about how the settlement would be paid to the heirs of Blind Pension Fund recipients who had been shortchanged on their payments.
Huff testified that included some of the 65 people who participated in a conference call Tuesday.
Language resolving that issue was added to the settlement before the Friday afternoon hearing.
Kim Evans, DFS deputy director, told Joyce the fund mailed 7,770 postcards to people eligible for the payments, with 1,829 of those notices returned — and 69 of those reported as deceased.
She said the names were taken from the fund's "legacy list" as well as its list of current recipients.
The settlement includes a process to add names of people who were missed in the mailings but still eligible to receive the settlement money to the list.
Huff told Joyce: "Everybody has been completely satisfied, and are glad that it's over."
Payments from the settlement will start in February.
Approving the settlement also ends the state's fifth appeal of one of Joyce's rulings in the long-running case.
But attorney John J. Ammann of Saint Louis University's Litigation Clinic — who's been one of the plaintiffs' lawyers since the trial's beginning — said March 1, when the settlement was announced, people shouldn't be critical that Attorney General Josh Hawley's office appealed Joyce's October 2017 ruling, since that gave the parties more time to negotiate the settlement.