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Public Employees' Retirement System v. Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority

California Court of Appeals, Third District, Sacramento

May 29, 2018

PUBLIC EMPLOYEES' RETIREMENT SYSTEM, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
SANTA CLARA VALLEY TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY, Defendant and Respondent. PUBLIC EMPLOYEES' RETIREMENT SYSTEM, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
AMALGAMATED TRANSIT UNION LOCAL 1555, Defendant and Respondent.

          APPEAL from judgments of the Superior Court of Sacramento County, No. 34-2016-00196269-CU-MC-GDS David I. Brown, Steven H. Rodda, Judges. Affirmed.

          Xavier Becerra, Attorney General, Thomas S. Patterson and Marc LeForestier, Assistant Attorneys General, Tamar Pachter and Nelson R. Richards, Deputy Attorneys General for Plaintiff and Appellant.

          Robert Fabela and Richard North for Defendant and Respondent Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.

          Leonard Carder, Peter Saltzman, Kate Hallward, and Craig Schechter for Defendant and Respondent Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555.

          BUTZ, J.

         California's Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) (Gov. Code, § 20002), [1] as opposed to the board that administers the system (§ 9353), filed a complaint seeking declaratory relief regarding the proper interpretation of the effect of section 7522.02, subdivision (a)(3) (hereafter section 7522.02(a)(3)) on the pension benefits of transit workers. The CalPERS executive office had announced its own interpretation, which resulted in over 400 pending administrative appeals. As representative parties, the CalPERS executive office named as defendants a transit agency (the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (Santa Clara Transit)) and an employee representative for a different Bay Area transit agency (the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 (Local 1555)), which had been supporting the arguments of their employees and members, and had filed administrative appeals of their own.

         Santa Clara Transit filed a demurrer, which the trial court sustained, entering judgment in its behalf. Local 1555 then filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings, which the trial court granted, entering a separate judgment in its behalf. In each ruling, the trial court concluded that the CalPERS executive office was subject to the procedural prerequisite of the exhaustion of administrative remedies, as the issue was pending in the appeals before the CalPERS board, and the CalPERS executive office had not established any exception to exhaustion in its allegations. The CalPERS executive office separately appealed from each judgment. We have consolidated the appeals for purposes of consideration and argument.

         The CalPERS executive office continues to assert it may bypass the process in CalPERS regulations for administrative appeals to the CalPERS board and proceed directly to the trial court to obtain a declaratory judgment on its interpretation of section 7522.02(a)(3). In its response to supplemental briefing that we requested, it also contends that it is not subject to the general rule that an action for declaratory relief is not appropriate for the review of administrative decisions in lieu of a petition for a writ of mandate. (City of Pasadena v. Cohen (2014) 228 Cal.App.4th 1461, 1466-1467 (City of Pasadena).) Neither position is tenable. We shall affirm the judgments.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         There is little we need to add to our introduction other than procedural details. As fascinating as the underlying substantive issue of pension benefits may be, it is not before us. We provide a quick précis in order to provide context for the dispute.

         Effective January 1, 2013, the Legislature revised public employee pension benefits for new hires by enacting the California Public Employees' Pension Reform Act of 2013 (PEPRA) (§ 7522 et seq.), generally reducing benefits under the existing structure in order to lower the cost of the pension system. (See State of California v. U.S. Dept. of Labor (E.D.Cal. 2016) 155 F.Supp.3d 1089, 1093 (State of California)). We are not concerned with the details of the reform.

         The federal government disputed the application of the PEPRA to transit workers as an interference with federal law, and sought to withhold transportation grants. (State of California, supra, 155 F.Supp.3d at p. 1094.) In response, the Legislature enacted section 7522.02(a)(3) as an urgency measure in October 2013, exempting transit workers from the PEPRA until January 1, 2015, or until there was a federal district court ruling that the PEPRA did not interfere with federal law, whichever came first. (See Stats. 2013, ch. 527, §§ 1, 3.) The State of California also brought suit against the federal Department of Labor in a federal district court, obtaining summary judgment in its behalf in a decision filed on December 30, 2014. (California v. U.S. Dept. of Labor (E.D.Cal. 2014) 76 F.Supp.3d 1125, 1148; see State of California, supra, 155 F.Supp.3d at p. 1094.)

         Soon thereafter, the CalPERS executive office announced in a circular letter[2] dated February 25, 2015, that the exemption in section 7522.02(a)(3) had expired by its own terms. Hereafter, the CalPERS executive office would treat all transit workers hired between January 1, 2013, and December 29, 2014, as accruing benefits under the old system during that period, and thereafter accruing the new limited PEPRA pension benefits starting on December 30, 2014 (along with those hired on or after Dec. 30).

         Not surprisingly, “[o]ver 400 of those employees then filed administrative appeals challenging [the] administrative action and interpretation of PEPRA. Several [employee representatives], including... Local 1555, raised the same challenges... on behalf of their members[, as well as assisting in their appeals]. [¶] [Santa Clara Transit] also filed an administrative appeal [in December 2015] on ...


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