Monday, September 24, 2012

Court Finds Impairment of Pension Benefits Unconstitutional Under Contract Clause

In Cherry, Jr. et al. v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore City, et al., (D. Md., September 20, 2012), Case No. MJG-10-1447, a federal judge ruled Baltimore's plan to impair firefighters' and police officers' pensions is unconstitutional under the Contract Clause of the federal Constitution.  The Contract Clause provides that "No State shall...pass any...Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts..."  The Clause frequently comes into play when the government tries to pass laws to get out of its own contractual obligations, including collective bargaining agreements.

To pass muster under the Contract Clause, a law that impacts the government's contracts has to pass several tests.  The test at the center of the Cherry decision is the "reasonable and necessary" test.  To pass this test, there have to be unforeseeable consequences to the contract and the law impairing the contract must be the least drastic impairment.  In Cherry, the Court ruled the City failed this test because the unions offered more balanced approaches.

While the ruling in Cherry decision vindicates public employees in Baltimore, several California cities are trying to impair their contractual obligations.  Mastagni Law attorneys David E. Mastagni, Isaac S. Stevens, and Jeffrey R. A. Edwards are litigating similar challenges against the cities of Los Angeles, Stockton, and Pacific Grove.