Shared in accordance with the "fair dealing" provisions, Section 29, of the Copyright Act.http://www.thechronicleherald.ca/Front/565818.htmlEx-soldier filing class-action lawsuit against Ottawa over disability pension clawback
By CHRIS LAMBIE Staff Reporter
A former army Ironman competitor has launched a proposed class-action lawsuit that could cost the federal government hundreds of millions of dollars.
In October 2000, Dennis Manuge was working as a mechanic on an armoured vehicle at CFB Petawawa in Ontario when he fell about three metres, breaking a small bone in his back.
Mr. Manuge, who now lives in Porters Lake, is suing because Ottawa clawed back about $10,000 of his disability pension for two years after he was released from the military.
"This is not about the money," he said Tuesday.
"Unless we get damages awarded to us, by the time legal fees are paid, I’ll be lucky to see $5,000."
But other more severely disabled vets are seeing much more money clawed back, Mr. Manuge said.
"Some of these guys are losing $1,500 or $2,000 a month," he said, adding the toll it’s taken on their families has been horrendous.
Mr. Manuge, 37, has written to scads of politicians, including Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor, to complain about the clawback.
"To this day, all I received from the minister of national defence is a postcard with the crest of the Canadian Forces on one side and, on the back, it simply says, ‘The minister has received your correspondence,’ " he said.
"After breaking my back for this country and for him and everybody else, that’s what he and his staff thought of me."
The former corporal’s back injury causes him considerable pain. In 2002, while still in the army, he started receiving a $444 monthly disability pension equivalent to 20 per cent of his pay.
"I got my entire Canadian Forces pay, plus my disability pension," Mr. Manuge said.
But that changed when he was released from the Forces in December 2003 for medical reasons.
Under the military’s insurance plan, which everyone in uniform must join, Mr. Manuge was entitled to three-quarters of his former income for two years because he had become too physically disabled to do his job.
The plan takes into account all relevant sources of income and only pays the amount that takes a person up to the 75 per cent level, according to a recent letter that military ombudsman Yves Cote wrote to Mr. O’Connor.
"Most notably, and in my view problematically, (the plan) considers monthly Pension Act disability pensions as a ‘relevant source of income’ and deducts such pensions from the amount that would otherwise be paid to the former Canadian Forces member," Mr. Cote wrote.
The ombudsman’s office investigated after receiving more than 50 complaints.
"Complainants argued that it was unfair that disability pensions were considered as a source of income under the (plan’s) formula, when the purpose of the disability pension was not to act as income replacement but to compensate them for the pain and suffering they had endured as a result of becoming disabled while serving their country," Mr. Cote wrote.
The ombudsman’s office eventually agreed that was "profoundly unfair." It recommended the military stop clawing back the money and that former Forces personnel who had their benefits reduced due to disability pensions be reimbursed for amounts deducted since October 2000, when the pension scheme in question was instituted.
The ombudsman said the cost of those changes is estimated to be $320 million.
The lawsuit, which has not yet been certified by a judge as a class action, also seeks punitive, exemplary and aggravated damages. It argues the clawback deprives former soldiers of their charter right to live free from discrimination.
As early as 2003, the ombudsman told the government it wasn’t fair to treat former soldiers who lost their jobs due to a disability differently than those who were injured but could still serve.
"I think it’s a righteous claim," said Peter Driscoll, the Dartmouth lawyer handling Mr. Manuge’s case.
The pension scheme was changed last year.
But there are still people in uniform collecting disability pensions who could see them clawed back if they are terminated, Mr. Driscoll said.
And there are thousands of people who lost pension benefits between 2000 and 2006, he said.
In the past five days, he’s heard from more than 100 of them, including dozens in Nova Scotia, who are keen to join the lawsuit filed March 15 in Federal Court.
The government has 30 days to file a defence.
A Justice Department spokesman refused comment on the case.
Mr. Manuge joined the military in August 1994. He spent nearly a decade in the army, including a tour in Bosnia in 2001 after he was injured.
While Mr. Manuge’s physical activities are now limited to walking and Pilates exercises, in 1999 he participated in the army’s Ironman race. That involved carrying an 18-kilogram pack while marching and running 33 kilometres, carrying a canoe 4.3 kilometres, paddling the craft 7.5 kilometres and lugging the pack another 5.5 kilometres. He completed the race in eight hours and 40 minutes.
"To go from that level of physical fitness to a physical disability and be given absolutely zero respect or consideration from the government, to me it’s criminal," Mr. Manuge said. "It’s absolutely unacceptable."