February 23, 2011
Circuit Split on Burdens in Contracts Clause Claims
In United Automobile, Aerospace, Agricultural Implement Workers of America International Union v. Fortuño, Puerto Rico's labor unions sued its governor in order to challenge Act No. 7, enacted to address a budget crisis through, among other things, layoffs and salary freezes. Plaintiffs challenged this act as an unreasonable and unnecessary -- and thus unconstitutional -- infringement of the unions' collective bargaining agreements. See U.S. Const. art. I, § 10, cl. 1 ("No State shall. . . pass any . . .Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts").
In order to determine whether the Contracts Clause has been violated, courts employ a two-part test, first determining whether the challenged state action causes a substantial impairment of contractual obligations and, if so, determining whether the impairment is reasonable and necessary to serve some government purpose. The court assumed an affirmative answer to the first issue but nonetheless upheld the District Court's dismissal of the claim on the ground that plaintiffs had not adequately pled that the Act was not reasonable or necessary.
The First Circuit's finding turned in large part on its determination that plaintiffs bear the burden of establishing that the challenged legislation is not reasonable or necessary, despite clear law that courts need not defer to legislative findings on the subject when the government is the beneficiary of the challenged contract modification. The issue appears to be one of first impression for the First Circuit, although the court acknowledged that both it and the Supreme Court had previously used language that might be construed as placing the burden on the state. The Sixth and Ninth Circuits place the burden on the state; the Second Circuit places the burden on plaintiffs.
Having determined that plaintiffs have the burden, the court set out a multi-factor test for determining when state action that impairs contractual relations is reasonable and necessary. The court's application of this multi-factor test is complicated, but the upshot of it seems to be a severely heightened pleading standard, suggesting that one would have to hire economic experts and crunch some numbers in order to meet the burden and survive a motion to dismiss.
NB: In describing Act No. 7, the opinion indulges in a classic misuse of the word "plethora," viz:
Finally, Phase III temporarily suspended, for a period of two years, a plethora of statutory, contractual, and other provisions governing the conditions of employment for the remaining affected public employees.
Please don't make us tell you again. "Plethora" means "an unhealthy excess." It does not mean "a whole bunch."
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