The whole notion about pensions belonging to pensioners just died screaming today as the Supremes got a hold of it and took it out back to Roberts Court the hell out of it.
The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a chemical company may be able to cut the health benefits of its retired workers, unanimously reversing an appeals court ruling that said the benefits had vested for life.
“Courts should not construe ambiguous writings to create lifetime promises,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court, adding that “retiree health care benefits are not a form of deferred compensation.”
The Supreme Court returned the case to the appeals court, telling it to use ordinary principles of contract interpretation to determine whether the collective bargaining agreement at issue had granted free lifetime health care.
The appeals court erred, Justice Thomas wrote, “by placing a thumb on the scale in favor of vested retiree benefits in all collective bargaining agreements.”
The case concerned a union contract at the Point Pleasant Polyester Plant in Apple Grove, W.Va. Like many other collective bargaining agreements, it did not directly say whether health benefits for retirees would vest for life.
So yes, the Supreme Court apparently has no real problem with screwing over ordinary Americans over a technicality in the wording *cough King v Burwell cough*.
When the case, M&G Polymers USA v. Tackett, No. 13-1010, was argued at the Supreme Court in November, several justices seemed puzzled that the contract had not nailed down such an important point.
“Both sides knew it was left unaddressed, so, you know, whoever loses deserves to lose for casting this upon us when it could have been said very clearly in the contract,” Justice Antonin Scalia said. “Such an important feature. So I hope we’ll get it right, but, you know, I can’t feel bad about it.”
The appeals court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled for the retirees in 2013, relying on its own 1983 decision, which put a thumb on the scale in favor of vesting.
But hey, Scalia can’t feel bad about pretty much anything, because his heart was replaced with a rock some time ago. Notorious RBG at least tried to provide some guidance.
In a concurrence, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made the case that the retirees could prevail under the new, stricter standard.
“No rule requires ‘clear and express’ language in order to show that parties intended health care benefits to vest,” she wrote.
She urged the appeals court to consider other factors. One signal that the health benefits had vested, she said, was that the retirees had vested pensions. The contract tied health benefits to those “receiving a monthly pension,” she said.
So, maybe there’s some hope for this in the future as Thomas tossed this case back to the Sixth Circuit here in Cincy to try again, but since Kennedy didn’t sign on to RBG’s concurrence (Kagan, Breyer and Sotomayor did) that future would look to be a 5-4 decision in favor against the retirees.
Pass the cat food, Gramps.