TJOFLAT, Circuit Judge:
This case presents a problem common to most cities in the United States. Their pension funds have been operating at a substantial loss, and the cities' long-term liabilities are becoming unfunded at an exponentially increasing rate. That is, the contributions employees and cities are making to pension funds — as a percentage of the employees' salaries — are being used to pay the pensions earned by retirees instead of being set aside and invested for employees' retirements.
The trend is all too familiar to Gadsden, Alabama. In 2011, its pension program — administered by the State of Alabama but comprised of local funds — had an unfunded liability of $50.9 million. In fact, Gadsden anticipated having to pay 24.54% of its employees' total compensation out of public funds during the following year to prevent default. This projected expense contributed to a $1.5 million shortage in Gadsden's proposed budget.
With its back against the wall — and in an effort to resuscitate its flailing pension program — Gadsden raised its employees' pension contributions by 2.5% of their total compensation. It did so pursuant to an Act passed by the Alabama legislature mandating such an increase for state employees and permitting, but not requiring, localities to do the same. In response, a class of Gadsden firefighters
Since 1939, Gadsden has provided its firefighters with a pension program as part of their compensation. Firefighters initially belonged to a local program, the Policemen's and Firemen's Retirement Fund of the City of Gadsden (the "PFRF"). In 2002, concerns about the PFRF's solvency led Gadsden to negotiate a new arrangement with these employees: the City, it was agreed, would terminate the local fund and move all of its assets, liabilities, and members into the Employee Retirement System of Alabama (the "ERS") — a state-administered retirement fund. All Gadsden employees, except for firefighters and police officers, had been members of the ERS since 1970.
Because the current plan's unfunded liability stems from the PFRF, we first describe the PFRF and the consequences of its merger with the ERS in 2002. We then turn to the events surrounding Gadsden's decision to increase plaintiffs' pension contribution rate.
Alabama Legislative Act 106 of 1939 established the PFRF in Gadsden.
But serious concerns eventually arose about the fund's financial health. Doc. 50-9, at 11-12. The PFRF Board of Trustees
Under the terms of the ERS — as provided by statute — an employee with ten years of "creditable service"
In addition to employee contributions, the funding for ERS comes from employer contributions and from investment income. Doc. 47-5 at 33. Although all funds are co-mingled and invested by the ERS leadership, each locality participating in the ERS has a separate account maintained on its own behalf. Doc. 47-1, at 98. Local employers are responsible for making their own contributions at a rate set by the ERS leadership. Ala.Code § 36-27-6(f). The employer contribution rate varies from year to year according to the assets and liabilities of a given locality's individual account. Id.
In 2002, amid concerns about the long-term viability of the PFRF, Gadsden's mayor looked to the City's ERS account for a lifeline. That account, in the mayor's words, was "solid as a rock." Doc. 50-5, at 10. And in fact, Gadsden's ERS account was so financially sound that, in 2001, it was completely funded; its employer contribution rate, moreover, was set at just 1.51 %. Doc. 47-5, at 202-03. Impressed by the stability of the ERS account, Gadsden's mayor requested that both the police and fire departments appoint a committee to discuss the possibility of moving the PFRF into the ERS. Doc. 47-8, at 10-12.
It should come as little surprise, then, that a majority of PFRF members ultimately agreed that joining the ERS was a prudent choice.
On October 8, 2002, Gadsden issued a resolution that dissolved the PFRF, moving its members, its assets, and its liabilities into Gadsden's ERS account. Doc.
The rate increase at issue in this case traces its roots to an Act of the Alabama legislature ("Act 676")
But by its terms, the Act only concerned the contribution rates of state employees. It gave localities participating in the ERS the option of applying these state-level increases to their own employees (the "local option"). See id. ("Any employer participating under Section 36-27-6, by adoption of a resolution, may elect for the increases in employee contributions provided by this act adding this language to be withheld from the earning compensation of employees to the employer."). In August 2011, Gadsden accepted this invitation and passed a resolution "elect[ing] to come under the provision of [Act 676]" and "increase employee contribution rates as specified by [the Act]." Doc. 10-10. By exercising the local option, Gadsden reduced its own employer contribution rate by 2% and closed its $1.5 million budget gap by approximately $500,000. Doc. 47-5, at 203; Doc. 47-1, at 94.
In response to Gadsden's adoption of the local option, seven Gadsden firefighters brought this lawsuit against both the City of Gadsden and its mayor, alleging that the increase in their contribution rate violated the contractual protections of both Article I, § 10 of the United States Constitution and Article I, § 22 of the Alabama Constitution.
Plaintiffs argued that Gadsden's resolution adopting the local option was overbroad in that it applied to firefighters who have over ten years of creditable service and are thus "vested" in the rights of the pension program.
On appeal, plaintiffs argue that Gadsden firefighters with over ten years of creditable service have a "vested" right to a contribution rate of 6% and that Gadsden's decision to raise that contribution rate violated their constitutional rights. This argument relies on the assumption that Gadsden made an implied promise — included in its employment contract with each individual firefighter — not to raise the contribution rate once a firefighter becomes eligible for pension benefits under the terms of the ERS. By breaching this implied promise, plaintiffs allege, Gadsden violated the contractual protections of both the United States Constitution and the Alabama Constitution. The argument proves too much.
The Contract Clause of the United States Constitution provides that "[n]o State shall ... pass any ... Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts."
The Contract Clause prohibits a State from passing any "law" that impairs the obligation of contracts. As such, the Clause is "aimed at the legislative power of the state," New Orleans Waterworks Co. v. La. Sugar-Refining Co., 125 U.S. 18, 30, 8 S.Ct. 741, 747, 31 L.Ed. 607 (1888), and is "directed against legislative action only," Barrows v. Jackson, 346 U.S. 249, 260, 73 S.Ct. 1031, 1037, 97 L.Ed. 1586 (1953). Legislation is "[t]he process of making or enacting positive law in written form, according to some type of formal procedure, by a branch of government constituted to perform this process." Black's Law Dictionary 982 (9th ed. 2009).
Plaintiffs do not challenge an act of legislation, however. Lost in the fog of litigation, this undisputed point bears emphasis: the contribution rate increase stems from a resolution by the City of Gadsden in 2011, Doc. 10-10, that the City was permitted — but not required — to adopt pursuant to state law, see Ala.Code § 36-27-59(b)(2). The State of Alabama is not a defendant in this case. And the City of Gadsden's decision to implement the local option did not involve an ordinance
Municipalities, it should be remembered, are "bodies politic and corporate." Ala. Code § 11-40-1; see also Laramie Cnty. Comm'rs v. Albany Cnty. Comm'rs, 92 U.S. 307, 308, 23 L.Ed. 552 (1875) ("Counties, cities, and towns are municipal corporations.... Beyond doubt, they are, in general, made bodies politic and corporate...."). Creatures of state statute, municipalities are formed "as convenient agencies for exercising such of the governmental powers of the state as may be [entrusted] to them." Hunter v. City of Pittsburgh, 207 U.S. 161, 178, 28 S.Ct. 40, 46, 52 L.Ed. 151 (1907). By adopting the resolution, the City acted as would any board of directors faced with a decision about how to best manage the affairs of a corporation. See 1 Eugene McQuillin, The Law of Municipal Corporations § 2:14 (3d ed.2010) (noting that "the mayor and council, acting officially as the municipal corporation, are analogous to trustees representing the corporation and the public"). That is, the City merely decided on a "particular item of business coming within [its] official cognizance ... relating to the
Without passing any "law," Gadsden was, at bottom, "doing nothing different from what a private party does." Horwitz-Matthews, Inc. v. City of Chicago, 78 F.3d 1248, 1250 (7th Cir.1996). As a result, the plaintiffs have no basis upon which to launch a Contract Clause challenge in the first instance.
Even assuming the City's resolution can properly anchor a Contract Clause challenge, plaintiffs cannot prevail. In evaluating their claim, we must first determine whether the state law at issue "operated as a substantial impairment of a contractual relationship." Allied Structural Steel Co. v. Spannaus, 438 U.S. 234, 244, 98 S.Ct. 2716, 2722, 57 L.Ed.2d 727 (1978). That inquiry turns on "whether there is a contractual relationship, whether a change in law impairs that contractual relationship, and whether the impairment is substantial." Gen. Motors Corp. v. Romein, 503 U.S. 181, 186, 112 S.Ct. 1105, 1109, 117 L.Ed.2d 328 (1992). Assuming a substantial impairment of a contractual relationship has taken place, the challenged law will nonetheless pass constitutional muster if it is "reasonable and necessary to serve an important public purpose." U.S. Trust Co. of N.Y. v. New Jersey, 431 U.S. 1, 25, 97 S.Ct. 1505, 1519, 52 L.Ed.2d 92 (1997).
For purposes of Contract Clause analysis, the existence of a contract is a federal question. Romein, 503 U.S. at 187, 112 S.Ct. at 1109-10. That said, we must "accord respectful consideration and great weight to the views of the State's highest court" when making this determination. Id. (quoting Indiana ex rel. Anderson v. Brand, 303 U.S. 95, 100, 58 S.Ct. 443, 446, 82 L.Ed. 685 (1938)). In doing so, we must be mindful that, as a constitutional matter, "the word `contracts'... is used in its usual or popular sense as signifying an agreement of two or more minds, upon sufficient consideration, to do or not to do certain acts." Crane v. Hahlo, 258 U.S. 142, 146, 42 S.Ct. 214, 215, 66 L.Ed. 514 (1922).
Despite ample discovery, no party has produced the written agreement between the firefighter-employees and the City, nor is there much evidence about what the terms of such a writing might contain. We look instead to the statutory provisions that govern the ERS. When engaging in such a review, we must "proceed cautiously both in identifying a contract within the language of a regulatory statute and in defining the contours of any contractual obligation." Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Ry. Co., 470 U.S. 451, 466, 105 S.Ct. 1441, 1452, 84 L.Ed.2d 432 (1985). That is because "the principal function of the legislature is not to make contracts, but to make laws that establish the policy of the state"; after all, "[p]olicies, unlike contracts, are inherently subject to revision and repeal." Id. at 466, 105 S.Ct. at 1451. Unless the legislature evinces an "unmistakable" intent to be contractually bound,
Here, the ERS — a public pension plan — can be fairly characterized as "part of the compensation package that [the City] dangle[s] to attract and retain qualified employees." See McGrath, 88 F.3d at 17. Pensions are thus "regarded as a species of unilateral contracts." Id.; see Bd. of Trs. of the Policemen's & Firemen's Ret. Fund v. Cary, 373 So.2d 841, 842 (Ala. 1979) (per curiam) ("We analogize [a public pension program] to a unilateral contract...."). That is, "the promise of a pension constitutes an offer which, upon performance of the required service by the employee[,] becomes a binding obligation." McGrath, 88 F.3d at 17 (alteration in original) (quoting Hoefel v. Atlas Tack Corp., 581 F.2d 1, 4 (1st Cir.1978)).
The Alabama Supreme Court has made clear that once employees "have served and retired, the benefits to which they are entitled may not be reduced subsequent to their retirement absent an express reservation of a right to amend at any time." Cary, 373 So.2d at 842. In the State of Alabama, then, contractual rights to retirement benefits accrue when employees have fulfilled their end of the bargain. For firefighters, this means performing ten years of creditable service and upon their reaching the age of retirement, or, alternatively, performing twenty-five years of creditable service, regardless of their age. See Ala.Code § 36-27-16(a)(1). Until that time, however, employees' interests in the retirement plan are "subject to legislative modification." Cary, 373 So.2d at 843.
Plaintiffs argue that Gadsden firefighters who have complied with the statutory requirements possess a "vested" right to a 6% employee contribution rate. This argument relies on the assumption that there exists an implied promise not to raise the employee contribution rate once a firefighter becomes eligible for retirement benefits. We can find neither hide nor hair of such a promise.
To begin, nothing in the text of Alabama Code § 36-27 suggests that the employee contribution rate is immune from change, even after an employee's retirement benefits have vested. Employee contribution rates, moreover, were amended several times before plaintiffs joined the ERS. And it is well established that "the pervasiveness of ... prior regulation in [an] area suggests that[,] absent some affirmative indication to the contrary," the most recent modification will not necessarily be the last. Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp., 470 U.S. at 469, 105 S.Ct. at 1453. Indeed, by our count, the contribution rate for various classes of ERS participants has been amended at least six times over the course of several decades. See supra part I.A. When deciding whether to join the ERS, the former PFRF members were on notice of these prior increases, including an increase only one year before, which applied specifically to firefighters. Plaintiffs also had access to the 2002 ERS employee handbook when choosing whether to accept Gadsden's offer to change the terms of their pension. This handbook explicitly stated that the "member contribution rate is determined by statute and subject to change by the Alabama Legislature." Doc. 50-27, at 9. Taken together, this evidence indicates that whatever contractual
Plaintiffs challenge this conclusion by pointing to Alabama Supreme Court precedent holding that pension benefits, once vested, cannot be reduced by subsequent legislation. Br. of Appellant at 29-32. Their reliance on this line of precedent is misplaced. Nothing in the reasoning of these cases suggests that every pension provision is rendered immutable once an employee becomes eligible to retire. To the contrary, the Alabama Supreme Court has selectively extended such protection only to benefits promised by the employer for which the employee has satisfied all the conditions precedent. See, e.g., Cary, 373 So.2d at 842 ("[W]here the promissee has completely performed all of the obligations and all conditions precedent ... the promisor has an unqualified duty to pay those obligations."); Snow v. Abernathy, 331 So.2d 626, 631 (Ala.1976) ("Snow's contractually vested right was to receive all benefits `contracted' for.... By electing, expressly or by assent, to participate in such plan employees acquire vested rights of contract to the benefits provided therein upon acceptance of the plan."); Smith v. City of Dothan, 279 Ala. 571, 576, 188 So.2d 532, 536 (Ala.1966) (per curiam) ("[U]pon reaching eligibility for retirement... [the employee] acquired a vested right to the benefits provided by [the pension program] free of the amendatory effect of [subsequent legislation].").
Here, the City did not alter plaintiffs' pension benefits; instead, it altered their pension obligations. This distinction — between pension benefits and pension obligations — is warranted by the well-worn difference between earned and anticipated compensation under the Contract Clause. Earned compensation is contractually protected: for example, if a public employee renders services "under a law specifying his compensation," he acquires a contractual right to be paid the amount promised. Mississippi ex. rel. Robertson v. Miller, 276 U.S. 174, 179, 48 S.Ct. 266, 268, 72 L.Ed. 517 (1928). Anticipated compensation, by contrast, does not receive the same protection; before a public employee renders services, the amount of promised compensation can be freely amended. See Dodge v. Bd. of Educ., 302 U.S. 74, 78-79, 58 S.Ct. 98, 100, 82 L.Ed. 57 (1937) ("[A]n act merely fixing salaries of officers creates no contract in their favor, and the compensation named may be altered at the will of the Legislature." (footnote omitted)). Nothing in the challenged legislation divests plaintiffs of their earned pension benefits. Instead, the increased contribution rate simply reduces plaintiffs' anticipated compensation by deducting an additional 2.5% from their future take-home pay.
In sum, plaintiffs have no contractual right to a static, inviolable 6% contribution rate. The City was free to amend the
Even assuming the existence of a contractual provision not to raise the employee contribution rate, plaintiffs still cannot succeed on their Contract Clause challenge because — at most — the City has breached a contract, not impaired one. Determining whether legislative action qualifies as a breach of contract or an impairment of contract "depends on the availability of a remedy in damages." E & E Hauling, Inc. v. Forest Preserve Dist. of Du Page Cnty., Ill., 613 F.2d 675, 679 (7th Cir.1980) (citing Hays v. Port of Seattle, 251 U.S. 233, 237, 40 S.Ct. 125, 64 L.Ed. 243 (1920)). In other words, we must distinguish "between a measure that leaves the promisee with a remedy in damages for breach of contract and one that extinguishes the remedy." Horwitz-Matthews, Inc. v. City of Chicago, 78 F.3d 1248, 1250 (7th Cir.1996). This formulation means that "where a city breaches a contract without a state legislative mandate as a defense, nothing generally prevents or excuses the city from performing its obligations, and thus the city will be liable for damages." Crosby v. City of Gastonia, 682 F.Supp.2d 537, 543-44 (W.D.N.C. 2010).
Of course, there is no legislative mandate to speak of in this case. The local option is just that — an option. The State has not passed legislation "that would prevent a local government from fulfilling its obligations under a contract [such that]... the breaching local government is prevented by state law from performing." Id. at 543. Because no state action has denied plaintiffs the possibility of a damages remedy, "it would be absurd to turn [the] breach of contract ... into a violation of the federal Constitution." Horwitz-Matthews, 78 F.3d at 1250.
Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that the City of Gadsden impaired their contractual rights in this case. Accordingly, the judgment of the District Court is