Illinois Supreme Court Intervenes in Politically Charged State Pension Battle

Earlier this month, the Illinois Supreme Court accepted a rare direct appeal, agreeing to wade into the politically charged battle over state employee pension rights. The Court ordered the consolidated appeals in Kanerva v. Weems transferred from the Appellate Court directly to the Supreme Court.

Kanerva is a consolidated case arising from four putative class actions originally filed in Sangamon, Madison and Randolph counties. All four class complaints challenge 2012 amendments to the State Employee Group Insurance Act, which instruct the Director of the Department of Central Management Services to allocate the cost of health insurance premiums between the State and its employee-retirees. The Director of CMS is directed to make that determination based on the actual cost of medical services adjusted for age, sex and geographic and demographic characteristics. 5 ILCS 375/10(a). The 2012 amendments to the Act were passed in response to Illinois' ongoing budget crisis.

The putative class representatives bring various challenges to the 2012 amendments. All argue that the amendments violate the Pension Protection Clause of the Illinois constitution, which provides that "Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, and unit of local government or school district, or any agency thereof, shall be an enforceable contract relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired." Illinois Constitution, Article XIII, Section 5. Two plaintiffs argue that the law violates Article I, Section 16 of the state Constitution: "No . . . law impairing the obligations of contracts . . . shall be passed." One alleges that the statute is an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority to the Director of CMS. One seeks an award of money damages, and three of the four seek to enjoin enforcement of the 2012 amendments.

The Sangamon County Circuit Court allowed defendants' motions to dismiss all four complaints. With respect to the Pension Protection Clause, the court held that since health benefits are not actuarially predictable (in contrast to pension benefits, which are akin to an annuity), they are not analogous to pension benefits, and not covered by the clause. The Court rejected the challenges under the Contracts Impairment Clause, holding that since it was foreseeable that the terms and conditions of the group insurance plans would change yearly, no enforceable contractual rights were vested in retirees.

The court rejected the separation of powers challenge, holding that the statute had a clear legislative purpose, identified the persons covered, provided the means for the agency to meet the purpose of the statute, and appropriately limited the agency's discretion. Finally, the Court dismissed the claims of one class plaintiff who sought damages, holding that such claims must be brought first in the state Court of Claims.

The Supreme Court seems likely to hear arguments in Kanerva before the end of 2013. A decision should be handed down three to six months after the oral argument.

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