Thursday, February 5, 2015

Supreme Court Addresses Private Sector Vested Rights

On Monday the Supreme Court struck a blow to vested health-care benefit rights under collective-bargaining agreements in the private sector. Previously, courts assumed health-care benefits in a collective-bargaining agreement vested for life absent language to the contrary. This case changes that presumption. Now, health care benefits will not vest for life unless clearly stated in the collective-bargaining agreement. 

The issue in M&G Polymers USA, LLC v. Tackett is how health-care benefits vest under a collective-bargaining agreement. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit said health-care benefits are vested unless the collective-bargaining agreement say they are not. This presumption protects the vested benefit right.

The Supreme Court reversed that presumption. The Court said the presumption had no basis in contract law. Thus, when a contract is silent as to the duration of benefits, a court may not infer that the parties intended for those benefits to vest for life. The Court did not reinterpret the contract.  Instead, it asked the Sixth Circuit to review the case under “ordinary principals of contract law.”

This opinion does not reflect California law in the public sector. Article 1, Section 9 of the California Constitution prohibits the legislature from passing a law which impairs the obligation of contracts. The California Supreme Court has clearly stated that once a public employee accepts employment and works for an employer, the employee’s rights are protected by the Contract Clause. (White v. Davis (2003) 30 Cal.4th 528, 566.) Among these protected rights are vested pension rights. (Betts v. Board of Administration of Public Employees’ Retirement System, (1978) 21 Cal.3d 859, 863.)

Additionally, this ruling does not change the presumption in California that a public employee’s right to health benefits may be based on the implied terms of a collective bargaining agreement. (Retired Employees Association of Orange County, Inc. v. County of Orange (2011) 52 Cal.4th 1171.) However, an implied right to health-care benefits will only be inferred if there is a clear basis in the contract or convincing extrinsic evidence supporting the vested right.