Thursday, January 26, 2017

First Appellate District Challenges Vested Rights Doctrine in Upholding Elimination of Airtime Credit

In Cal Fire Local 2881 v. California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the Division Three of the First District Court of Appeal upheld the elimination of the “airtime credit” benefit in Public Employment Retirement Systems (“PERS”). Airtime credit was a benefit available to CalPERS and some other PERS programs that allowed members who had already earned five years of service credit, to purchase another five years of “nonqualified retirement service credit.” The record reflected that PERS had been under charging for the benefit.  In 2013, the Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act of 2013 (“PEPRA”) was passed in what was billed as an effort to reign in unfunded pension liabilities. One of the provisions of PEPRA eliminated the ability to purchase airtime credit.

The court considered whether the ability to purchase airtime credit was a “vested benefit.” The court started its analysis with a general presumption against the granting of a vested benefit, unless its text or legislative history evidence an intent to be bound. Applying the reasoning in Employees Assn. of Orange County, Inc. v. County of Orange (2011) 52 Cal.4th 1171, the court held “there is nothing in either the text of the statute, or its legislative history, that unambiguously states an intent by the Legislature to create a vested pension benefit. This demonstration of intent, as we explained above, is required by California law.” The court found no such intent with respect to airtime.

Further, the court held no right was destroyed, noting PEPRA provided members with a seven month window to purchase the service credit, and that such applications would be honored if they were submitted prior to December 31, 2012. "Thus, nothing in the revised statutory scheme immediately destroyed plaintiffs’ right to purchase the airtime service credit ... To the extent plaintiffs lost out on the opportunity to purchase the airtime service credit, such loss was, accordingly, a product of their own doing."

The court also held that the elimination of airtime did not destroy any benefit because the cost of airtime was always intended to be borne entirely by the employee.  Because the benefit was established as cost neutral to the employer, "the employees, not the state, paid for this benefit" and therefore the court held "this simply is not a case where the state provided a retirement benefit to its employees in exchange for their work performance, and then took the benefit away."

Most significantly, the court endorsed Division Two of the First District's holdings in Marin Association of Public Employees v. Marin County Employees’ Retirement Association (MAPE) regarding the authority of the Legislature to reduce retirement benefits s long as they do not destroy the pension.  This superfluous basis for upholding the elimination of airtime is striking given that the Supreme Court had granted Review of MAPE.

MAPE broke with a half century of precedent holding that any modification of a pension resulting in a detriment must include an offsetting advantage.  On November 22, 2016, the California Supreme Court issued an order granting review of MAPE, holding, "The petition for review is granted. Further action in this matter is deferred pending the decision of the Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, Division Four, in Alameda County Deputy Sheriff's Association et al. v. Alameda County Employees' Retirement Association et al., A141913
Although the elimination of airtime is not particularly significant, the court's unnecessary adoption of the MAPE reasoning in the face of Supreme Court review could affect broader legal principles involving the California vested rights doctrine.  Our office currently is representing two law enforcement associations in two separate pension related appeals in the First Appellate District, including the Alameda Deputy Sheriff's Association.  2017 is shaping up to be an important year for determination pension rights.