San Jose Firefighters Again Battle Pension Reform Referendum

San Jose Fire Fighters, IAFF Local 230 continued their pension battle against the City of San Jose by filing a lawsuit challenging a pension reform measure which San Jose voters approved on June 4, 2012. The suit, filed yesterday in Santa Clara County Superior Court, challenges San Jose’s controversial voter-approved pension reform, Measure B, which passed  by a 70-percent margin. Measure B authorizes the city to move ahead with pension reforms to reduce costs.

San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed introduced the measure to control escalating pension costs that he claims have increased from $73 to $245 million in the past 10 years. City officials claim that pension costs have forced the city to introduce several austerity measures including staffing cuts.

The firefighters union along with the police union filed separate complaints challenging the authority of the ballot measure, stating that it violates earlier court rulings which prohibit government employers from unilaterally reducing employees’ pension benefits. Both unions previously filed suits challenging the referendum.

The attorney for IAFF Local 230, Christopher Platten, publically stated “Measure B is unlawful and unconstitutional…[because it] impairs promises made to current and retired San Jose employees for decades.”

The union asked for an injunction to stop the city from implementing Measure B until the case can be decided on its merits.

The City of San Jose meanwhile filed a suit in Federal court on June 5, 2012 seeking a declaratory judgment arguing that Measure B does not violate the “Contract Clause” of the US Constitution. That provision prohibits a state from interfering with any pre-existing contract.

Article 1 Section 10 reads (my emphasis added):

No state shall enter into any treaty, alliance, or confederation; grant letters of marque and reprisal; coin money; emit bills of credit; make anything but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts; pass any bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts, or grant any title of nobility.

The employees allege that the referendum alters (“impairs”) their contract with the city.

Mayor Chuck Reed  said that “Measure B will withstand legal challenges because the state constitution and city charter grant its elected leaders authority over employee compensation” and  “The California constitution grants charter cities complete authority over employee compensation, and our own charter provides that the council can from time to time amend or change any retirement plan.”

Here is the firefighter’s suit. FFs v City of San Jose

Here is the city’s suit for declaratory judgment. City of San Jose Suit for Declaratory Judgment

More on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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