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MTS pensioners win long fight over surplus

Supreme court rules on disposition of $43.3M

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of about 7,000 MTS pensioners Thursday afternoon, ending a 15-year saga over their pensions.

"Vindicated," was lead plaintiff Harry Restall's response when asked his reaction to the decision. "It's exciting and it's wonderful."

The often-bitter dispute centred on the disposition of a $43.3-million pension surplus that existed when the company transformed itself from a Crown corporation into a publicly traded corporation.

In January 2010, the Court of Queen's Bench ruled MTS had to repay that amount and interest dating back to 1997.

But in February, the Manitoba Court of Appeal overturned the lower-court ruling, saying there was no breach of an original memorandum of agreement.

Some estimates after Thursday's decision peg the new total, including interest, at $120 million.

With the ruling from the highest court in the land, MTS is now out of legal options.

"That's end of the road," said Brian Meronek, a partner at D'Arcy & Deacon LLP, who represented the pensioners.

He likened the lengthy dispute to a battle between David and Goliath.

"It was the little guys against the big guy. They wouldn't be pushed around," he said.

MTS said it was reviewing with outside advisers the implications of the ruling, which it described as "complex" and would require further negotiations with the plaintiffs before the definitive impacts on the company's pension plan and the company are known with certainty.

Meanwhile, as a result of a recent equity financing and the company's strong cash flows, MTS "is expected to have sufficient liquidity to satisfy all its pension funding obligations" and to maintain its current credit rating.

"This is a very disappointing outcome, but we were prepared for this scenario and are confident that should we need to make additional pension payments this year, we can fully manage its financial impact while maintaining our long-term strategy for delivering shareholder value," said Wayne Demkey, chief financial officer at MTS Allstream.

The two sides will still have to sit across the table from each other as how the pension benefits will be distributed still needs to be determined.

Paul McKie, national representative for Unifor, the union representing the clerical and operator services at MTS, admitted some relief the ordeal is finally over.

"This has been a long fight," he said. "We're obviously unbelievably happy that the Supreme Court has upheld the lower court ruling and ruled that the pension surplus belongs to them and MTS wrongfully used it," he said.

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca

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