The Fall of Pacific Grove – The City's Tepid Defense of the Vested Rights Lawsuit
The Final Chapter, Part 2 of 4
In June of 2010, the City of Pacific Grove (City) received an initiative petition from a citizen’s group containing the requisite number of signatures. Thereafter the city adopted the petition as an ordinance. The ordinance limited the city’s obligation to pay for employee pensions for work not yet performed to 10% of salary. Employees retained full credit for work already performed. At that time, the city attorney and city manager openly and intensely opposed the adoption on political grounds. In an attempt to raise a legal objection, the city attorney referred to Article 25 of the city charter, which indicated that compensation should be set by the city council. He argued that it could not be set by initiative.
There were two problems with the city attorney’s legal point: first, the council was in fact adopting the ordinance as its own, and second, because setting salaries was a legislative act, it was subject to the citizens’ power of initiative regardless of the gratuitous charter directive that the council should set salaries; that point had been held in the case of M.R. Spencer v. City of Alhambra (as of this writing it is good law and has been cited in 122 appellate cases). The only way that the people could have excluded “compensation” from the initiative power was to set forth the exclusion in the charter, and it had not.
The council approved the ordinance 6-1; the current mayor who was and is against any pension reform for Pacific Grove was the lone dissenter. He was elected mayor in November 2012 (along with two other pro-union anti-pension reformers), and that became important in allowing the unions, the city attorney, and city manager to ultimately defeat the pension reform measure by throwing the law suit challenging the ordinances. What follows is a description of how they pulled it off.
The Monarch Butterfly’s Pacific Grove Sanctuary – selling this to developers might
pay for one year of employer pension fund contributions! Maybe even two years!
When I first learned of the pension reform initiative, I had the three legal sponsors of the initiative delay obtaining signatures until I had researched whether PG city employees had vested contract rights by actual contracts or by a statute or the charter. Through public record requests, I reviewed the original charter (1927) and every change going forward. Until 1955, the charter expressly prohibited a pension. In 1955, the charter was amended to allow the council to enroll the city in a pension plan where the sole obligation of the city was to pay premiums. Another part of that charter provision allowed a “complete” (vested) pension plan by a vote of the people. In 1957 the council, without a vote of the people, authorized the city to join CaLPERS. Thereafter, there were no further amendments to the city charter dealing with pension rights.
I reviewed all of the resolutions, codes, and ordinances, together with all MOUs (contracts between the city and labor) and the contract and all amendments thereto between the city and CaLPERS from 1957 to date.
There was no document that even hinted that the pension rights were vested. To the contrary, because there was no vote of the people approving a “complete” pension it was clear that if it was claimed that joining CaLPERS created a vested pension right, it was void because of the absence of a vote of the electorate. As noted, in the POA case, the court had made a pre-trial ruling that there were no documents that created a vested pension right.
Article 16 of the city charter states: “The right of initiative and referendum is hereby preserved to the citizens of the City to be exercised in accordance with procedures proscribed by the Constitution and General Laws of this State.” If the citizens wanted to prevent initiatives about compensation, then it needed to say so in Article 16, but did not. Otherwise, as a legislative act, fixing salaries and compensation was reserved to the people in the initiative power (Spencer). And of course, the council did in fact adopt the pension reform ordinance as its own.
As a safety measure, at the time that the council adopted the pension reform ordinance, it had the city attorney prepare a council-sponsored ballot measure that simply clarified that the people had the authority to sponsor an initiative about compensation regardless of Article 25. It also reaffirmed that employees did not have and never had vested pension rights The measure became Measure R on the ballot. Because it was sponsored as part of the pension reform ordinance, it was clearly intended to be retroactive to protect the ordinance from any claim that it could not save the ordinance because it came after adoption of the ordinance. The city attorney was clear that the measure was timely to protect the reform ordinance. Otherwise, why bother? And of course it was unnecessary because the law was so clear that the people retained the legislative power to set salaries and compensation. You can probably guess how the city attorney and SF counsel took a dive on this issue in the trial.
In November 2010, the Pacific Grove Police Officers Association et. al. (POA) sued the city, alleging that the new ordinances breached vested pension rights as set forth in MOUs and the contract with CaLPERS; that only the council could set compensation and setting compensation was not subject to the initiative (Article 25 of charter); and that plaintiffs had an “implied vested pension right” based on hiring advertisements and oral statements made by a city administrator to new hires.
During 2011 through November 2012, the law suit was processed on normal punch and counter punch practices. The city initially had notable success. On July 27, 2011, the court (not by the trial judge) made its order granting the city judgment on both POA claims that it had vested pension rights arising out of the MOUs between the city and the unions and arising out of the contract between the city and CaLPERS. The POA had not referred to any statute, code, resolution, or charter provision as the basis for a vested pension right, so that left the unlikely claim of a vested pension right by implication. But the law is clear, as set forth in the CEB seminar and the cases, that even such a claim must have its genesis in a legislatively adopted contract or a statute, and there was none. The trial court was not informed of this by Pacific Grove’s attorneys, who as experts in the legal issue, knew this requirement beyond all doubt.
In November 2012, Bill Kampe, a dyed-in-the-wool union backer was elected mayor, replacing then-mayor Carmelita Garcia. Garcia was a determined pension reformer whose love of the city was like a tattoo on her forehead. After Kampe’s election, defense of the POA case by the city deteriorated from winning to lost; based on its attitude and statements, it became clear that the Kampe council majority hoped that the city would lose the law suit. Per the charter, the council, the city attorney, and the city manager all had an unqualified duty to enforce the pension reform ordinance. Measure R passed by a vote of 74% of the voters and thereby created a second pension reform ordinance that was challenged in the POA law suit.
I was concerned because it was clear that neither the city attorney, nor the San Francisco law firm defending the city, was aware of the content of my research of the charter, codes, resolutions, ordinances, MOUs, and other contracts. The history about the prohibition in granting a vested pension in the charter at the time PG joined CaLPERS would have defeated any claim of a vested pension right. And in particular, the CA Supreme Court had stated that there could be no implied vested right if it violated a legal prohibition. The vote requirement of the charter was such a prohibition.
When the POA sued, I protested to the council and the city attorney about the city attorney’s bias as openly displayed by him at the time the city adopted the pension reform ordinance. I, joined by the sponsors of the initiative, demanded that he not be involved in defense of the POA law suit. Regardless, he was allowed to choose and to supervise the lawyer selected to defend the case. In doing so, he restricted the lawyers from interviewing Dr. Daniel Davis and me.
Dr. Davis was the author and one of the three sponsors of the initiative adopted by the council. He had served for years on the city planning commission and two terms as a member of the city council. He was a practicing mathematician, with graduate degrees from Georgia Tech and a Ph.d. in math from Cal Tech. He had worked as a scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) for 18 years, interfacing with David Packard. He was the key representative of the thousands of citizens favoring the pension reform (74%). He was ably qualified, and in 2008 wrote an academic-quality article about the risks arising from defined benefit pension plans. How could he not be allowed to participate in the defense of the law suit? Unless, of course, the mayor and the attorneys wanted to lose the law suit (at a defense cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars).
After the 2012 holidays I became very concerned that the city was not prepared for the trial of the POA law suit. I had made numerous e-mail requests to the city council and the SF attorneys demanding that Dr. Davis and I be allowed to participate in the defense of the vested rights case. Trial of the case was set for March 21, 2013. I met with Mayor Kampe and councilmen Cuneo and Huitt on March 13, 2013 and explained the need for our participation in the case. I received nothing in response, just blank looks. No “Yes,” no “No,” just “This meeting is over.”
On February 22, 2013, each side in the law suit filed its trial brief. I read both briefs and concluded that the city attorney and the SF lawyer wanted the city to lose the case. Why did I believe that? Most importantly, the city brief did not inform the judge about the law and evidence necessary for the POA to prove a vested right. The judge should have at a minimum been provided the six points listed in Part One from the LCW CEB seminar.
As set forth in the CEB seminar, when analyzing whether a pension or other benefit is vested, the beginning point is the language of the document conferring the benefit; and that vesting is a two-step process: is there a valid contract conferring the benefit, and if so does the contract contain an express or implied term that the benefit is not just for a limited term, but vested for life? Most importantly: there is a presumption that a vested right has not been created and the POA had the burden of producing evidence (the burden of proof) to overcome the presumption. The judge was not even informed of this basic principle.
The law in the case was so basic. The attorney for the city, supervised by the city attorney, did not inform the trial judge of the simple rules for determining the existence of a vested contract right. The omission concerning the presumption against creation of vested right, that put the burden of proof on the back of the POA, was well beyond legal malpractice.
As I have demonstrated, the judge assigned to the case had no understanding of the city’s defenses because the trial brief did not inform him of the basic law of vested contracts. I attended the first day of the trial. It was assigned to Judge Wills. By agreement, the case was submitted on declarations, documents, and judicial notice of documents. There was no testimony.
Judge Wills acknowledged that he had never seen the file until that moment and that he would review the file and the trial briefs and decide the matter. The city had turned a case that could not possibly be lost into a certain loser. I wrote several e-mails to the council and the press explaining how the case had been intentionally thrown.
Was there a statute, charter provision, code, ordinance, or resolution that provided for a vested pension benefit? No. To this day, none has been asserted by the city or the unions. There is none.
Was there an implied term in any of the statutes, charters, codes, ordinances, resolutions, or contracts that created an implied vested contract right? As set forth in numerous cases like Retired Employees of Orange Co., Inc. v. County of Orange, the implied vested right must flow from concurrent evidence surrounding the time of adoption of the contract or statute (minutes, agenda reports, etc.), not an oral utterance or publication for new hires years later. Attorneys reading this must be thinking, “How in hell could the court admit a hearsay statement made 50 or more years after adoption of the benefit? How could one witness be allowed to testify in a declaration that all new hires were told they had a fixed-cost pension benefit?” Even the declaration of the witness was not so raw as to say that they had been promised the benefit for life. Both the city and SF attorney understood that for the last 40-50 years, retirement benefits for new hires were set forth in a writing, an MOU agreed to after collective bargaining; the best-evidence rule required that the writing, not an oral comment of one union member to another, was the best evidence of what employees were to receive as pensions. And the court had already ruled that the MOUs did not create vested contract rights. But the attorneys for the city could have, but did not, object to the hearsay declaration of the union witness. In my view, a failure of that magnitude could only be intentional. Both the city an SF attorneys were experts in this area of the law.
According to the Pacific Grove Charter, “The compensation of all officers and employees shall be fixed by Ordinance.” Under the law there are no exceptions to such a provision. In June 2012, LCW in its California Public Agency Labor and Employment Blog discussed the case of San Diego Firefighters, Local 145 v. Board of Administration of the San Diego City Employees Retirement Board. In the case, the appellate court held that because the benefit in question had only been approved by a resolution and not an ordinance as required by the city charter, the contract granting the benefit was void. So clearly, oral statements by administrators describing compensation as asserted by the POA could not possibly grant a vested right. Only an ordinance could do that. The case also held that there was no estoppel based upon the employees’ reliance on the contract. The case was not cited in the city brief.
As set forth in the LCW CEB seminar outline, it is “legislative intent” expressed at the time of the adoption of a contract or statute granting the pension benefit that is critical to establishing an implied vested pension right. Why? Because, by law, the only intent that could create a vested contract right is the legislative intent (the city council); after it adopts a contract or statute, the only type of evidence that supports an implied claim is evidence “concurrent with the adoption,” but not set forth in the document.
An administrator informing a new hire of the current pension plan orally or in a publication of any kind 50 years later cannot prove the required legislative intent. LCW proved that beyond all doubt in its defense of the city in the South Pasadena case discussed above. To date, all of the appellate cases that dealt with a claim of an implied vested right have been lost by the claimants. In every case, like the Orange County case and the South Pasadena case, claimants argued that decades of MOUs proved a vested benefit right. They lost because they could not show legislative intent by evidence concurrent with the time of adoption of the benefit.
What evidence would provide the legislative intent to grant a vested right although the contract or statutes did not? I believe a concurrent agenda report or benefit committee report that made it clear that the adopted benefit was intended to be for life would do the trick. But that is just my opinion.
After reviewing the trial briefs, Dr. Davis and I independently did what we could. Dr. Davis wrote a letter to the council indicating that the city’s brief did not set forth even a token defense, let alone the clear winning evidence. Dr. Davis said: “We have repeatedly pointed out that the City Attorney’s opinions . . . created a conflict of interest with regards to a defense of the 2010 initiative. . . . Now that the City has utterly failed to defend the fundamental basis of pension reform in the POA law suit the City has proven that our fears were justified.”
I wrote several e-mails to the city council, the SF attorney defending the case, and even met with the pro-union mayor and two of his council yes-men prior to trial. I expressed that based on the city trial brief, the case was not ready to be tried, would be lost, and that it was imperative that Dr. Davis and I be allowed to participate in defense of the city’s case. It did not happen. The Kampe council majority, the city attorney, city manager, and the unions made sure that the city lost the pension reform law suit.
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