Ruling on Jury Trial for Rhode Island Pension Lawsuit Could Come This Week

Judge Sarah Taft

Judge Sarah Taft

Will it be a jury or a judge deciding the legality of Rhode Island’s 2011 pension reforms?

That’s a question that could be answered as soon as tomorrow, when a judge will decide whether to grant the state’s request for a jury trial in the long-running lawsuit against the state’s pension reforms.

From the Providence Journal:

The lawyers in the state’s high-stakes pension case are headed back to Superior Court on Tuesday to hear Judge Sarah Taft-Carter’s anticipated decision on whether to let a jury decide the legality of the state’s sweeping 2011 pension overhaul.

[…]

The treasurer, the governor and the state retirement system have requested a jury trial in the long-running fight over the legality of pension cuts that Governor-elect Gina Raimondo crafted — and shepherded to passage in 2011 — in her current role as state treasurer, and earlier cost-cutting moves dating to 2009.

The phalanx of unions that filed the central lawsuit in June 2012 contend the cutbacks — which include the temporary suspension of the annual “cost-of-living adjustments” (familiarly known as COLAs) for retirees — are illegal.

Even though the pension benefits at issue are dictated by state law, not contract, the unions argued — and Taft-Carter agreed as a starting point for the case — that there was an implied contract.

The defendants want a jury, not a single judge, to decide whether the 2011 rewrite of state pension law impaired a contract, whether the impairment was substantial and “whether there was a legitimate public policy purpose behind the legislation that is sufficient to justify the impairment of the alleged contractual rights.”

Even if the plaintiffs who brought the six linked lawsuits establish “beyond a reasonable doubt a substantial impairment of a contractual relationship,” the state’s filing says: “It must be decided whether there is a legitimate public purpose behind the government action and whether that purpose is sufficient to justify the impairment of contractual rights.”

But a lawyer for the plaintiffs, Douglas L. Steele, told the court at an earlier juncture that the case isn’t about monetary damages. The unions want the court to use its discretion and injunctive powers to put the law back the way it was.

Carly Beauvais Iafrate, an attorney representing about 7,000 retirees, said: “We’re asking you to reinstate our benefits as they existed on June 30, 2012. That means we are asking you to take the law and just put it back. That, to me, is equitable.”

In short, the lawyers for the unions — and the retiree groups — that filed the legal challenges contend: “There simply is no right under Rhode Island law to a jury for impairment of contract claims” or any of the other alleged violations of the “takings” and “due process” clauses of the Rhode Island Constitution.

The state’s 2011 reforms applied to all workers and retirees, not just new hires. The changes included suspending COLAs and moving employees into a hybrid pension plan with elements of a 401(k)-plan.

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