If you think you've "earned" benefits during your governmental or private employment, perhaps you'd be smart to question whether you can cash in on them upon retirement.

Consider the case of Leonard P. Kline, who retired in 1977 as the Fairfax City police chief after serving 24 years on the force. On retirement, he thought he was due $12,763 in unused sick leave. Refused it, Kline appealed through the courts, ultimately reaching the U.S. Supreme Court.

And yesterday that tribunal decided the city did not owe Kline the money; it had, under the court's action, the right during Kline's period of employment to change its policy.

To start from the top:

Before 1975, when it changed its policy, Fairfax City paid lump sums to retiring workers who had not exhausted sick leave. If Kline had retired by then, he would have received $12,763. But he stayed on, later contending in court documents that he felt the sick leave he had "earned and not used due to job dedication and fortunate good health would be honored and compensated when he finally retired."

The city didn't, and Kline filed suit, charging he had been deprived of property (his sick-leave pay) without due process. Last Oct. 8 the Virginia Supreme Court upheld a lower state court ruling that the city was within its rights in changing its policy. Kline subsequently appealed to the U.S. high court.

Putting aside the question raised by Kline of changing policies in midstream, which is arguable, MetroScene comes down in principle on the side of the taxpayer (and the private employer): Sick leave, strictly enforced, should protect an employe against illness; it shouldn't produce a dividend for those fortunate enough not to need its use.