Rhode Island Pension Lawsuit Won’t Be Delayed, Says Judge

Rhode Island Judge
Judge Sarah Taft-Carter

Lawyers on both sides of Rhode Island’s pension lawsuit had asked the court to push back the start of the trial, but a judge denied that request on Friday. The lawyers had wanted more time to prepare, but Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter re-iterated that the trial will start on April 20, as planned. Carter’s remarks, reported by WPRI:

“It’s time to try the case,” Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter said in open court. She described the pension cases as “old,” noting some were filed five years ago. The judge said she will file pretrial orders later Friday. Taft-Carter’s decision appeared to catch the dozen or so lawyers by surprise, particularly since both sides were in agreement on the need for a delay, potentially until January. […] But Taft-Carter noted that she had already scrapped one proposed trial start date – September 2014 – to give the two sides more time to prepare. “The issues remain the same,” the judge said. “The parties have had more than a year since the failed mediation to conduct their discovery.” […] John Tarantino, the lead attorney for the state defending the pension law, acknowledged he was disappointed by Taft-Carter’s decision Friday but noted it will have the same effect on both sides. “I understand the judge wants to get the case tried,” Tarantino said. “We believed we would have been in a better position – both sides – with a continuance. … We’ll deal with the time we have.” He indicated it’s unlikely the state will appeal Taft-Carter’s decision.

On Thursday, Carter also granted a motion to consolidate the collection of pension-related lawsuits into a single case.

Rhode Island Lawyers to Suss Out How Court Should Handle Pension Lawsuit

Rhode Island

At the end of this week, the lawyers representing Rhode Island and its retirees will meet with a Superior Court judge to discuss a major point of contention in the pension lawsuit brought against the state: how many trials should be held?

Lawyers for retirees argue that the lawsuit should be separated into multiple trials.

But the state, citing cost, is arguing for one trial.

More from the Providence Journal:

Lawyers for the Rhode Island Public Employees Retiree Coalition are pleading for a separate jury trial on their bid for reinstatement of their annual “cost-of-living adjustments,” which they see as the potentially more winnable case.


The state’s lawyers said separating the cases could put the state — and by extension, the state’s taxpayers — at a potential legal, tactical and financial disadvantage.

“If the retiree cases were tried first,’’ they said, “the evidence that would be submitted would include not just… the facts, circumstances and legislative changes pertinent to the retirees, but also all the evidence concerning… the reforms in 2005, 2009, 2010 as well as 2011… the evidence of how, and why, each separate group was addressed in each set of the legislative changes… and the reasonableness and necessity of the changes impacting each group under the totality of the circumstances facing the state.’’

Beyond that, “Governor Raimondo and former Governor Chaffee [sic] would have to testify at multiple trials, given that they were the Treasurer and Governor, respectively, at all times relevant to these cases… This would prevent the Governor from attending to her official duties [if] she had to testify multiple times.’’

In fact, “all the [defendants’] witnesses would have to testify multiple times, including expert witnesses, at great expense to the State Defendants and the public fisc.”

Rhode Island is being sued by over 100 retiree and labor groups for its 2011 pension reforms, which raised the retirement age, suspended COLAs and shifted new workers into a 401(k)-style hybrid plan.


Photo credit: “Flag-map of Rhode Island” by Darwinek – self-made using Image:Flag of Rhode Island.svg and Image:USA Rhode Island location map.svg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Rhode Island Pension Reform Law Sits in Legal Limbo on Three Year Anniversary – But Raimondo, Other Lawmakers Open To Settlement

Gina Raimondo

It’s been three years since Rhode Island passed into law a sweeping pension reform measure. But the law still sits in legal limbo after being challenged by labor groups.

A settlement has been hard to come by. But incoming Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo said Monday she is open to a settlement. From WPRI:

Raimondo – who initially resisted efforts to mediate, but ended up supporting the failed settlement after a judge ordered talks – suggested Monday she remains open to settling but only if she can preserve the lion’s share of the savings from the original 2011 law. The previous settlement reduced the state’s pension shortfall by $3.86 billion, about 94% of the $4.09 billion the law saved.

“As I have said numerous times, I supported the settlement agreement,” Raimondo told WPRI.com in a statement. “I would like to see that back on the table and enacted to put the lawsuits behind us. I am open to making that happen.”

But Raimondo added: “What I am not interested in is going backwards from what was agreed upon in the settlement.” The state is already projecting a budget deficit of nearly $200 million next year; it would be more than twice as high if the old pension system were still in place.

She isn’t the only Rhode Island lawmaker eager to settle and put the legal challenge behind them. From WPRI:

Seth Magaziner – the Democrat newly elected to succeed Raimondo as treasurer, who will therefore become a lead defendant in the pension suit – has long backed seeking a deal.

“I continue to be supportive of renewing settlement talks, and am hopeful that a resolution can be reached that will keep the retirement system on a secure footing and avoid lengthy and expensive litigation,” Magaziner told WPRI.com in a statement Monday.

Legislative leaders are also open to the possibility.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed have both signaled in recent days they want to reduce or eliminate taxes on retirement income, such as Social Security and pension benefits – a new perk for older residents that could help smooth the way for settling the pension suit.

“The speaker will work with all parties to help facilitate a settlement of the pension lawsuit that is in the best interests of the citizens of our state,” Larry Berman, a spokesman for Mattiello, told WPRI.com in an email Monday.

Paiva Weed spokesman Greg Pare sounded a similar note. “The Senate worked closely with Treasurer Raimondo to develop the Rhode Island Retirement Security Act, and will continue to work with her as governor,” Pare told WPRI.com in an email Monday.

The pension reform law froze COLAs and moved most employees into a hybrid system with 401(k) qualities. An actuarial analysis stated the reforms improved the funding level of the state’s pension system from 42 percent to 56 percent.