On the final argument day of the May term, the Illinois Supreme Court heard argument in Prazen v. Shoop, one of a brace of public employee pension cases currently on the Court's docket. Our detailed preview of the facts and lower court holdings in Prazen is here. The video and audio of the argument is available here.
Prazen relates to an Early Retirement Incentive (ERI) plan adopted by a city pursuant to section 7-141.1 of the Pension Code. The plaintiff took early retirement from his position as superintendant of the city electric department, purchasing five years "age-enhancement credit" pursuant to the ERI to do so. Less than two weeks before his retirement became effective, the plaintiff incorporated a business which he has run as an unincorporated entity for some time - Electrical Consultants, Ltd. Three days after it was incorporated, ECL entered into a management and supervision agreement for the operation of the city's electric department, effective the day after his retirement. ECL continued to manage and supervise the city's electric department for an additional ten years.
But here’s the problem: under Section 7-141(g) of the Pension Code, any pensioner who receives age enhancement credit and later "accepts employment with or enters into a personal services contract" with an employer subject to the Code forfeits the increase in his or her pension. In 2010, the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (“IMRF”) concluded that the plaintiff had violated Section 7-141(g), not because he had "accept[ed] employment with" or "enter[ed] into a personal services contract" with his former employer, but because his corporation was a "guise" to evade the statute. The Fourth District of the Appellate Court reversed, holding that the Board of Trustees of the IMRF had the power to find one of the two factual determinations under the statute -- "employment with" or "personal services contract" and that's it.
Prazen was an active argument, with both sides facing relatively heavy questioning. It was evident that the Justices were troubled by both sides’ positions – both by the Board’s invocation of a power which was not exactly self-evident on the face of the Pension Code, and by the implications of approving what seemed to be an arguably dubious method for avoiding the language of the statute on the part of the pensioner. As a result, it’s quite difficult to predict how the Court is likely to rule; few if any Justices suggested a definite leaning.
Justice Freeman began the argument by asking counsel for the IMRF which provision of the statute was violated - "employment with" or "personal services contract." When counsel argued that the statute was vague, and that the Board had found plaintiff's arrangement was a "guise" to end-run the statute, Justice Freeman asked counsel whether the Board had the power to make such a determination. Counsel responded that the Board believed it did. Justice Thomas asked whether the Court would have to find the statute ambiguous in order to adopt the IMRF's position, and counsel argued that the statute was ambiguous: "personal services contract" is not defined in the Pension Code, and although "employee" is, "employment with" is not a defined term either. Justice Garman repeated Justice Freeman's earlier question, asking where in the statute the Board gets the authority to find violation-by-"guise." Counsel responded that the power flowed from the Board's general authority to make determinations on participation and coverage in order to carry out the intention of the Fund. The Board had looked to the legislative intent behind the statute, and concluded that if the legislature's desire that local governments be able to bring in younger, less expensive employees (or eliminate positions entirely) and reduce payroll was to be possible, the plaintiff's incorporation device could not satisfy the statute. Justice Burke asked counsel whether the Board’s finding of a “guise” rendered Section 141(g) of the Pension Code superfluous. Counsel agreed that the Appellate Court had found that, but counsel disagreed, arguing that the section has to be construed as a whole. Looking at the facts, it seemed clear, counsel argued, that the corporation had been created to evade the return to work provisions of the statute. Justice Thomas asked counsel to comment on the fact that the pensioner’s attorney had contacted the IMRF for guidance three times. Counsel pointed out that the final letter from the Board had suggested that the corporation could not simply be a guise for evading the regulations. Justice Thomas asked counsel to respond to the argument that the statute’s plain language says what it says, and if personal corporations are to be barred, it should be amended. Counsel responded that the statute is vague and ambiguous, allowing room for the Board’s interpretation. Justice Garman asked whether there was specific legislative intent supporting the Board’s position, and counsel responded that it seemed clear from the preamble of the statute that the legislature wanted local governmental employers to have the flexibility to shed payroll through the incentive. Justice Karmeier asked whether the Board’s finding could be reversed simply because it had failed to make either of the mandated statutory findings, and counsel again responded that the Board had authority to make its findings under its general authority to administer the pension statutes.
Counsel for the pensioner began by emphasizing that the Section 141(g) permits two findings as a basis for forfeiture of the enhancement – either “employed with” or a personal services contract – and the Board had made neither. The first issue, counsel argued, was whether the IMRF had the equitable power to disregard the pensioner’s corporation. In response to a question from Justice Freeman, counsel argued that Section 17-200, the general grant of power relied upon by the Board, was just that – a general grant of power – which was trumped by the specifics in the rest of the Pension Code. Justice Freeman asked whether the crux of the case was the intent of the legislature. Counsel said no, the crux of the case was whether the Board had any power to disregard its limited authority under the statute to instead make a more general finding to justify a major forfeiture. Justice Thomas asked whether an opinion of the Court affirming the Appellate Court’s finding in favor of the pensioner would stand for the proposition that the statute could be evaded simply be self-incorporating and returning to work. Counsel responded by emphasizing that the pensioner’s corporation was not a sham; he had met every conceivable corporate formality. Justice Burke asked whether counsel would concede that the pensioner himself was the only person associated with the corporation who could perform the services called for by the contract, and counsel responded that there was nothing keeping him from hiring contractors. Justice Thomas repeated his question of whether an opinion affirming the Appellate Court would amount to an endorsement of the incorporate-and-go-back-to-work approach. Counsel responded that perhaps the statute, as written, created a political or factual absurdity, but that the flaw in the statute couldn’t be summarily remedied through judicial fiat on the back of a single pensioner. Where, counsel wondered, does one draw the line with the IMRF creating powers not expressly given? Chief Justice Kilbride pointed out that the case came before the Court under the Illinois Administrative Review Act, and asked what counsel’s argument was for the proposition that the facts the Board relied on were against the manifest weight of the evidence. Counsel responded that there was no evidence that his client had returned to the same job; in fact, he had not. If the goal was to eliminate the superintendant’s position, mission accomplished, counsel argued. He also pointed out that under the personal services contract, the city could now terminate his client with three days’ notice. In response to a question from Justice Thomas, counsel reviewed the factual circumstances of the three letters from the pensioner’s attorney to the Board. He argued that the Board’s action amounted to piercing the corporate veil, something that no court could possibly do on the record in the case. Counsel finished by again insisting that any problem with the statute had to be solved legislatively.
In a brief rebuttal, counsel for the Board argued that if the intent of the legislature is obvious from the words used, the Board had ample power to effectuate that intent. Counsel argued that the claim that the Board was piercing the corporate veil was a red herring; the Board was holding the pensioner responsible for his own acts, not for the acts of his corporation.Prazen will likely be decided in the fall.