US Bankruptcy Court

Stockton, Calif., faced a $1.6 billion termination fee from Calpers if it dropped out of the state pension system.

Restructuring & Bankruptcy
By Mary Williams Walsh
October 1, 2014 9:15 pmOctober 1, 2014 9:15 pm

A federal bankruptcy judge on Wednesday upended the widely held belief that public workers’ pensions have a special status in California that makes them impossible to cut, further chipping away at the idea that pensions are sacrosanct in a municipal bankruptcy.

The ruling, which came during a hearing on a plan by the City of Stockton to exit bankruptcy, did not order the city to cut its pension plan or take any specific action. The judge said that he needed more time to reflect on Stockton’s situation and that he would decide Oct. 30 whether the city could emerge from its two-year bankruptcy or whether it still had more work to do.

But the decision, by Judge Christopher M. Klein of the Eastern District of California, dealt a blow to California’s giant state-led pension system, known as Calpers, which has been leading efforts to preserve defined-benefit pensions nationwide.

Stockton has gone through what Detroit faces and hopes to emerge from bankruptcy protection in the spring. But its biggest problem, pension payments, still looms.

It echoed a decision made last year by Detroit’s bankruptcy judge, but went even further. While Detroit’s pension system was a struggling local entity with few friends in the state capital, Calpers is a powerful arm of the state, with statutory powers that include liens allowing it to foreclose on the assets of a city that fails to pay its pension bills.

Calpers had argued that if Stockton stopped making payments and dropped out of the state pension system, the lien would let it claim $1.6 billion of its assets. But Judge Klein said those statutory powers were suspended once a California city received federal bankruptcy protection.

“Why should I take that lien seriously?” he asked a lawyer for Calpers, Michael Gearin. “I may avoid it as a black-letter matter of bankruptcy law,” he said, referring to well-established legal principles.

He did not dispute that Stockton would be billed $1.6 billion to leave Calpers and said such a termination fee “can be seen as a golden handcuff.” But in bankruptcy, he said, Stockton could legally refuse to pay the bill because it arose from the city’s contract with Calpers, and contracts are broken routinely in bankruptcy.

“The bankruptcy code provides that the lien can be avoided and be treated as an unsecured claim,” Judge Klein said.

Judge Klein also said that Stockton had many options other than Calpers for retirement benefits: a private provider, like an insurance company; a multiemployer pension plan affiliated with a union; one of California’s county-run pension plans; or it could even offer no pensions at all.

“There are lots of permutations and combinations out there with respect to the art of the possible,” he said, adding that nothing in the law required any city to give its business to Calpers. “The whole world is out there.”

Judge Klein’s ruling went beyond anything that Stockton was seeking.

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