Thursday, October 2, 2014

Stockton Bankruptcy Ruling May Not Have Practical Affect on Employee Pensions

During Stockton bankruptcy proceedings on Wednesday, October 1, 2014, Judge Klein stated the City could reject the CalPERS contract under the bankruptcy code. Pension reform supporters overstate Judge Klein's oral ruling as a major blow to public employee pensions. In reality, this ruling may not affect Stockton employee pensions.

Judge Klein heard oral arguments from the City and its creditors about whether the contract between CalPERS and the City could be rejected in bankruptcy. The City's proposed bankruptcy plan maintains the City's CalPERS obligations and preserves employee pensions. One of the City's creditors, Franklin Templeton Investments, argued it was unfair for the City to maintain its contract with CalPERS at the expense of other creditors. State law provides that CalPERS contracts may not be impaired in bankruptcy. However, the state law contradicts the bankruptcy code, which allows impairment of contracts that have not been fully performed. Judge Klein ruled the City could cut ties with CalPERS under the bankruptcy code and impair employee pensions to allow more money for other creditors.

While this ruling suggests pensions may be vulnerable during municipal bankruptcies in the future, it is unlikely to affect pensions in this case. Judge Klein's oral ruling is not yet binding. He is scheduled to rule on the City's proposed plan on October 30, 2014. If he confirms the plan, this issue is avoided altogether because the current plan does not impair the CalPERS contract.

Even if the City has the option to reject the CalPERS contract, the City recognizes doing so would be highly impractical. The costs of losing the CalPERS contract greatly outweigh any potential benefits. This would force Stockton to join another retirement system, such as the San Joaquin County Employee Retirement Association, or create its own retirement system. Both options would likely cost at least as much as maintaining its CalPERS contract. 

If the City lost its contract with CalPERS, it may not be able to offer pensions to employees. The City estimated it could only recover 60% of the money necessary to fund its employees' pensions if CalPERS terminated its contract. Losing employee pensions would make the City unfit to compete in the labor market. This would inevitably cause a mass exodus of employees from the City and make it extremely difficult to attract new employees. Under PEPRA, Stockton employees would have to start working for another CalPERS contracting agency within six months after CalPERS terminates its contract with the City to avoid being treated as "new employees" and subjected to significantly worse pension formulae and cost-sharing rules.

Terminating the CalPERS contract would also throw the entire bankruptcy proceeding back into chaos. It would breach most, if not all, labor agreements as well as the settlement the City negotiated for retiree medical. The City would be forced to revise its current plan and reallocate the available funds. Additionally, it would give CalPERS a claim in the bankruptcy worth well over $1 billion.

In short, while the ruling is disconcerting, there is a significant chance this will not have any practical affect on Stockton employee pensions.