The Fall of Pacific Grove – A Primer on Vested Rights
The Final Chapter, Part 1 of 4
Editor’s Note: In early 2014 we published a eight part series, “The Fall of Pacific Grove,” written by retired attorney and Pacific Grove resident John Moore. It describes in detail how this small coastal city slid inexorably towards insolvency by yielding, again and again, year after year, to pressure from local government unions to award unaffordable pension benefits to city employees. Pacific Grove’s challenges are a textbook case of how there is simply no interest group, anywhere, currently capable of standing up to the political power of government unions. This small city now faces the possibility of selling off every asset they’ve got, primarily real estate, to private developers to raise cash for the city’s perpetually escalating annual pension contributions. They face the possibility of rezoning to allow construction of huge tourist hotels that will destroy the quality of life for residents, in order to enable new tax revenue producing assets to help pay the city’s required pension contributions. Anyone familiar with local politics knows that one of the only special interests with the financial strength to oppose government unions are major developers. This end-game, where public assets are sold to developers to generate cash for pension contributions ought to put to rest any remaining debate as to who runs our cities and counties. Of course developers aren’t going to oppose government unions. By extension, and in a tragic twist of irony, why should any libertarian leaning private sector special interest oppose government unions? As these unions drive our public institutions into bankruptcy, private sector investors buy the assets of our hollowed out public institutions at fire sale prices.
In this new four part series, author John Moore challenges the so called “California Rule” that supposedly makes pension modifications – even prospectively – legally impossible. But he also summarizes another legal approach to reform, one that takes into account the lack of due process and the ignorance of specific commitments made in the original granting of financially unsustainable pension benefit enhancements. It is an approach that has many facets and can be utilized in many California cities and counties. Sadly, Moore also exposes why this approach to reform, while viable, was only tepidly attempted in Pacific Grove. Regardless of how Pacific Grove’s situation evolves, what Moore has come up with here offers insights to anyone serious about pension reform in California.
The California State Bar governs the practice of law in California. Licensed active attorneys must continue their education by attending Continuing Education of the Bar (CEB) courses on a wide variety of subjects. Recently the law firm of Liebert Cassidy Whitmore (LCW), a large multi-office law firm emphasizing public law, was authorized by the State Bar to present a CEB course entitled Understanding “Vested” and Other Post-Employment Benefits. In order to understand precisely how the city government of Pacific Grove (city attorney, city manager, unions, and a union-backed council majority) defeated citizen pension reform, I can now, for the first time, with reliance on the course materials and the seminar, set forth important established principles of vested pension rights in California government agencies without being subjected to the retort that my assertions are only my opinions. The LCW seminar materials provide ample gravitas to my assertions. But first, here are some general principles that limit the applicability of vested right determinations.
Principle One: As set forth in the CA Supreme Court case of Valdez v. Cory (1983), state employees have vested pension rights. The court found there was a statutory scheme that gave state employees a contract right that continued for the life of each affected employee and was protected by the state and federal contract clause. Cases discussing state employee pension rights are not germane to the issue of whether a local agency’s employees have a vested pension right, because the discussions in the state employee cases assume that the employees have vested rights, while in non-state cases the issue is whether the legislative body granted a vested right.
Principle Two: California Teachers Assn v. Cory (1984), like Valdez, grants teachers in the State Teachers Retirement System a vested pension right.
Principle Three: Certain counties and some other local public agencies provide pension benefits pursuant to the County Employee Retirement Law (CERL). There is no case holding such benefits as vested, but a government code provision provides that benefits cannot be reduced or eliminated without the consent of all agency unions. A trial judge in Ventura found that unlike CaLPERS, CERL agencies did not have the right to terminate its plan. Its pensions are clearly vested-like.
Principle Four: The California Constitution grants plenary authority to charter cities to provide for compensation of officers and employees (Article XI, Section 5).
Will Pacific Grove’s parks be sold to developers to fund pension contributions?
There is no sweeping principle that provides a vested-right litmus test for particular at-law cities, charter counties, charter cities, cities and counties in CaLPERS and other cities and local municipal agencies.
The LCW CEB seminar sets forth the general rules that govern the process to determine whether a governing body had granted a vested pension or other post-employment right. Here is a summary of those rules, based on the seminar and CEB course documentation:
- Vested rights are created by contract (that contract is protected by the state and federal contract clause). Contracts can create vested rights, but also charters, ordinances, resolutions, codes, etc., dependent on the expressed intention of the legislative body.
- When analyzing whether a pension or other benefit is vested, the beginning point is the language of the document conferring the benefit.
- Vesting is a two-step process: Is there a valid contract conferring the benefit, and, critically, does that contract contain an express or implied term that the benefit is only for a limited term or is it vested for life?
- The established rule, supported by a legal presumption, is that a statute–like a charter, ordinance, resolution, or contract–does NOT create vested contractual rights. Employees have a heavy burden of proof to overcome the presumption.
- Written contracts like MOUs (contracts between labor and the employer) and contracts with a pension administrator like CaLPERS have the potential to contain contract language vesting a benefit, but rarely do. In the 2013 Pacific Grove vested rights law suit, the court, in a pre-trial ruling, held that neither the MOUs, nor the contract with CaLPERS, granted vested contract rights. Recently, the US. Supreme Court in M&G Polymers, Inc. v. Tacket (2015) held that benefits (medical) provided under a collective bargaining agreement are presumed to expire when the contract expires.
- The final area covered in the seminar dealt with implied vested contract rights. As an example, for analysis, LCW discussed the 2015 case of South Pasadena Police Officers Assn et al v. City of South Pasadena. LCW in fact defended that city against a claim that plaintiffs had a vested contract right to certain medical benefits at a fixed cost. To succeed in such a claim, the facts must show that the legislative body intended to grant the claimed benefit for life. Such claims are very difficult to prove, and the LCW attorney successfully and adeptly defeated the claim.
In the Pacific Grove case, the Pacific Grove POA argued that evidence set forth in the affidavit of a police officer and job advertisements indicated that new hires were entitled to a “fixed-cost pension benefit” and hence an implied vested pension right for all. That turned out to be the KEY issue in the law suit.
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Why is there so much confusion about whether a government agency has granted a vested pension right? In my experience, the present confusion is caused by statements by commentators, CalPERS, city, county, and agency lawyers describing the law that applies IF it has been established that a vested contract right existed. Quotes from Allen v. City of Long Beach (1955) are consistently out of context.
Kern v. City of Long Beach and Allen, were the foundation of the California Rule, which holds that in California (and 12 other states), if employees have a vested pension, not only pensions earned are vested, but employees are entitled to the rate of the current benefit and any increases for life (a benefit for work not yet performed cannot be eliminated). Earlier, in Kern, the Supreme Court held that a certain pension right set forth in the Long Beach charter could not be unilaterally eliminated by the city because current employees had a vested contract right created by the charter. A later attempt by the city to increase the employees’ contribution rate from 2% to 10% was struck down in Allen as a violation of that charter-granted vested contract right.
The confusion arises because quotes from Kern and Allen are cited as if the state and federal contract clauses created a vested pension right upon the date of employment without first establishing that a contract or a statute (charter, ordinance, resolution) had created the vested contract right for work not yet performed. In Pacific Grove, there was never any such statute, or any vested right to any employment contract ever adopted by the city legislative body or the charter. In both Kern and Allen a charter provision created such a right. The federal and state constitution protected the contract right, but did not and could not create it for a charter city like Long Beach or Pacific Grove.
Part Two will discuss Pacific Grove’s unprecedented non-defense in opposing the POA claim that the Pacific Grove police had a vested pension right based NOT on a document indicating legislative intent, but by a claimed instance of an oral contract between one administrative city agent, possibly the police chief, and one newly hired police officer, opining that all new hires had been told they had a fixed-cost retirement benefit.
Additionally, both Kern and Allen distinguished modifications by an agency when there is no financial threat of the pension system losing its integrity (the ability to pay pensions). If facts were presented showing that a pension system was flawed, e.g. that by mistake or fraud its cost was so great that all pensions were threatened, the system could be modified without off-setting benefits. The most oft-quoted misstatement of Allen is: “Reasonable alterations of pension rights must bear some reasonable relation to the theory of a pension system and its successful operation, and changes to a pension plan which result in disadvantage to employees should be accompanied by comparable new advantages.” The court went on to say (this is always omitted by commentators): “There is no evidence or claim that the changes enacted bear any material relation to the integrity or successful operation of the pension system.” Also in Allen (and earlier in Kern), the court said again: “The city does not claim (that changes) were necessary to preserve the pension program applicable to persons employed prior to March 29, 1945 (the date pensions were eliminated in Long Beach) and there is no indication that the city would have difficulty in meeting its obligations.” Several cases where pensions were reduced without off-setting benefits, because the integrity of the pension system was in peril, were cited in Kern and alluded to in Allen.
In other words, Kern and Allen dealt with a city where there was no threat to the ability of the system to pay pensions, but both cases made it clear that even agencies that have created vested pension rights may claim that the vested pension rights are unsustainable, but it must offer financial evidence that the system is failed. A court, pursuant to Kern and Allen, could find that the financial condition justified a reduction of vested benefits without off-setting benefits. No such evidence was offered in Kern or Allen, but it is maddening that pension reformers do not demand that legislative bodies reduce even vested benefits pursuant to the integrity doctrine of Kern and Allen. Almost all California pension systems are irrevocably under water financially. And the assertion that Allen stands for the proposition that vested pension rights have been created by the courts without the creation process described in the CEB LCW seminar is simply based on ignorance.
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About the Author: John M. Moore is a resident of Pacific Grove, Ca. He is a licensed member of the California State Bar (#34734) and a member of the “Public Law” section of the State Bar. He is retired and no longer practices law, but has Lexis/Nexis for research. John graduated from San Jose State College with majors in Political Science and Economics (summa cum laude). He then received a JD from The Stanford School of Law and practiced business and trial law for 40 years before retiring. In 1987, he was the founding partner of a Sacramento law firm that he formed in 1987 to take advantage of the increased bankruptcies brought about by the Tax Act of 1986. Although he did not file and manage bankruptcy cases, he represented clients in numerous litigation matters before the bankruptcy court, including several cases before judge Klein, the current judge of the Stockton bankruptcy case. He is an admirer of Judge Klein, for his ability and accuracy on the law. As managing partner, he understood the goals of bankruptcy filings and its benefits and limitations.
Read the entire series:
– The Final Chapter, Part 1, October 20, 2015
– The Final Chapter, Part 2, October 27, 2015
– The Final Chapter, Part 3, November 2, 2015
– The Final Chapter, Part 4, November 9, 2015
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About the Author: John M. Moore is a resident of Pacific Grove, Ca. He is a licensed member of the California State Bar (#34749) and a member of the “Public Law” section of the State Bar. He is retired and no longer practices law, but has Lexis/Nexis for research. John graduated from San Jose State College with majors in Political Science and Economics (summa cum laude). He then received a JD from The Stanford School of Law and practiced business and trial law for 40 years before retiring. In 1987, he was the founding partner of a Sacramento law firm that he formed in 1987 to take advantage of the increased bankruptcies brought about by the Tax Act of 1986. Although he did not file and manage bankruptcy cases, he represented clients in numerous litigation matters before the bankruptcy court, including several cases before judge Klein, the current judge of the Stockton bankruptcy case. He is an admirer of Judge Klein, for his ability and accuracy on the law. As managing partner, he understood the goals of bankruptcy filings and its benefits and limitations.
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Note to readers: During 2014 author John Moore published the first chapter of The Fall of Pacific Grove in an eight part series published between January 7th and February 24th. For a more complete understanding of the history, read the entire earlier series:
– Part 1, January 7, 2014
– Part 2, January 14, 2014
– Part 3, January 21, 2014
– Part 4, January 28, 2014
– Part 5, February 3, 2014
– Part 6, February 11, 2014
– Part 7, February 18, 2014
– Conclusion, February 24, 2014