In a case that has obvious implications for employee benefit plans, the Veterans’ Administration (“VA”) has just provided survivor benefits to the partner of a service member, even though the partners were not married before the service member’s death.
A California statewide ballot initiative proposal, The Pension Reform Act of 2014 was filed on October 15, 2013. The proposal if passed would amend the California constitution to provide that employees have no vested rights in future pension and retiree health benefit accruals, but only to benefits accrued based on past employment. As such, it would cause the vesting of public retirement plans in California to be more comparable to the vesting of private retirement plans under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”). The proposal, if adopted, would be particularly significant inasmuch as California has historically been a leader in the recognition of the right of public employees to vesting in future benefit accruals.
Pension plans of businesses and most tax-exempt organizations are subject to federal rules which permit them to discontinue accruals of benefits at any time, so long as previously accrued benefits are preserved. (Internal Revenue Code section 411.) By contrast, pension plans of governmental employers are typically subject to protections under court decisions based on federal or state constitutions provisions forbidding the “impairment of contracts,” which may require the preservation of not only past but future benefit accruals. The leading cases in this area come from California, although courts in other states have often looked to them in interpreting similar constitutional provisions in other states. See, e.g., Betts v. Board of Administration, 21 Cal.3d 859, 864 (1978).
Starting in 2011, California courts have begun applying similar reasoning to the provision of retiree health benefits, as well as pension benefits. In Retired Employees v. Co. of Orange, 52 Cal. 4th 1171, 266 P.3d 287, 134 Cal. Rptr. 3d 779 (2011), the California Supreme Court held that
under California law, a vested right to health benefits for retired county employees can be implied under certain circumstances from a county ordinance or resolution. Whether those circumstances exist in this case is beyond the scope of the question posed to us by the Ninth Circuit.
A recent case from the Los Angeles Superior Court, Los Angeles City Attorneys Association v. City of Los Angeles has provided additional guidance on this issue, although it seems to raise as many questions as it answers.
ERISA section 3(32), 29 U.S.C. § 1002(32), defines a governmental plan (exempt from Title I of ERISA) as:
a plan established or maintained for its employees by the Government of the United States, by the government of any State or political subdivision thereof, or by any agency or instrumentality of any of the foregoing.
Internal Revenue Code section 414(d) defines a governmental plan as:
a plan established and maintained for its employees by the Government of the United States, by the government of any State or political subdivision thereof, or by any agency or instrumentality of any of the foregoing.
So what happens if a plan is established by a private entity, but later maintained by a government or one of its agencies or instrumentalities? The Eastern District of Louisiana considered this issue in Smith v. Regional Transit Authority (May 10, 2013).