Federal Judges Dismiss Rhode Island Pension Lawsuit

Previous state pension plan changes noted in ruling.

A class action lawsuit filed by Rhode Island police and firefighter unions regarding the state’s 2011 pension reform has been dropped by three federal judges, WPRI reports.

The legislation, also enacted in 2015, altered the Ocean State’s pension system, freezing cost of living adjustments (COLA), and transforming active defined benefit plans into a hybrid pension plan to shore up its pension system, effectively reducing benefits for the Cranston fire and police unions. In 2016, the unions filed a class action lawsuit, citing the changes as unconstitutional because it violated a contract between the union and the state that had been in effect since 1996, when members had joined the pension system.

However, Monday’s panel of judges of the 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a previous dismissal set by retired US District Judge Mary Lisi, reasoning that the unions could not prove their claims.

“A claim that a state statute creates a contract that binds future legislatures confronts a tropical-force headwind in the form of the unmistakability doctrine,” the ruling said, as reported by the Providence Journal, which notes that the doctrine means that that a law is not intended to be a contract unless it is deemed so by a legislature. Judges reportedly also noted pension plan changes were made in 1975 and 1984, adding precedent for state pension alterations.

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