The State Worker

Lawsuit probes legality of boom-times pension benefit increase

California’s public pension crisis is bad and getting worse

California's two major public pension systems are underfunded and are asking local governments to pay more. Critics want to reduce benefits, while others say policymakers should allow time for recent changes to take hold.
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California's two major public pension systems are underfunded and are asking local governments to pay more. Critics want to reduce benefits, while others say policymakers should allow time for recent changes to take hold.

A lawsuit claiming Sonoma County illegally increased its pensions 16 years ago could open the door to benefit reductions for public workers around the state.

But before the legality of the pension increase is even addressed, the man who filed the suit has to convince an appellate court that his case isn’t barred by the three-year statute of limitations.

George Luke, 75, of Santa Rosa claimed in a 2017 lawsuit that Sonoma County didn’t meet state requirements when it increased pension benefits for public workers in 2003.

State law requires local governments to hire actuaries to estimate impacts of proposed benefit increases and to post the estimates publicly before making a decision. Luke, a retired lawyer who was representing himself in the lawsuit, claimed Sonoma County didn’t do those things.

A trial court judge dismissed Luke’s case in 2018, saying it didn’t meet statute of limitation requirements. He filed a notice of appeal last fall and filed a final brief making his case on March 1.

In an emailed statement, an attorney representing Sonoma County said the county followed the law when it increased pensions.

“The county complied with all applicable legal procedures when it approved the benefits Mr. Luke challenges, but he also challenges benefits approved on the public record in 2003 — 16 years ago,” attorney Jon R. di Cristina said in the statement. “This is precisely the kind of lawsuit statutes of limitation were designed to prevent.”

Luke is arguing on appeal that his claim isn’t barred by the statute of limitations since his taxpayer dollars are still going toward the increased benefits.

“The local agency shouldn’t be able to keep making the illegal payments just because they’ve gotten away with it in the past,” said Jeffrey Robinson, Luke’s attorney for the appeal. “We don’t think that’s in the public interest.”

The California Policy Center, a Libertarian think tank, raised money to pay for Luke’s legal team for the appeal, said Robert Loewen, chairman of the center’s board of directors.

The group is tracking legal challenges to pension increases that occurred in the state from 1999 to 2007. Luke’s case is one of three that trial courts have dismissed on statute of limitations grounds.

Loewen declined to say how much the group is paying toward Luke’s legal representation.

If the 1st District Court of Appeal sides with Luke, the case would go back to the trial court, where the legality of the 2003 increase could be taken up. The appellate court decision could come as late as the fall or winter.

In general, public workers’ retirement benefits may not be reduced under California law without new benefits to make up for the lost income. If Luke were ultimately to prevail in court, his victory would create the potential for local governments to examine whether past benefit increases had been appropriately awarded.

“If we were to avail here, if there is a determination that the statute of limitations is not the hurdle the trial courts have been saying it is … there’s going to be a lot of local governments in a position to ask (whether state law was followed for past benefit increases),” Loewen said.

In Sonoma County, public workers who benefited from the 2003 increase, whether they are retired or have yet to retire, could lose the increase in benefits.

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