A multi-day hearing to determine the fairness of the proposed state pension settlement started in Superior Court Wednesday. Fewer than 70 current state workers and retirees are expected to urge Judge Sarah Taft-Carter to reject the deal.
As the hearing began, lawyers on both sides said the pension settlement unveiled last month meets the legal test for fairness. Lynette Labinger, representing unions who sued the state over its 2011 pension overhaul, said, "The terms of the proposed settlement, when weighed against the strength of the parties’ claims and defenses, the risks of proceeding in litigation -- including the risk of an adverse judgment -- demonstrate that the settlement is fair, reasonable and adequate."
A lawyer for the state, John Tarantino, offered a similar message. In contrast to the observers who want an ultimate decision on the state's right to change pension benefits, Tarantino said going to trial would be a bad idea.
“There would be no winners in this case, even if it were tried to an ultimate conclusion," he said. "This is not the kind of case that I believe should be tried to a conclusion. It’s the kind where the parties who have control over the matter, if the court determines the settlement to be fair, adequate and reasonable, that is the best resolution.”
Yet dozens of workers are expected to express their opposition to the deal.
Debra Spellberg of Pawtucket, who said she works in accounts receivable for the Department of Human Services, is one of the current state workers opposed to the pension deal. Speaking outside of court, Spellberg called it unfair for the state to alter her retirement benefits mid-way through her working years.
“They took my livelihood and they turned it upside down," Spellberg said. "They pulled the rug from underneath my feet.”
Lawyer Miriam Weizenbaum, representing retirees opposed to the settlement, said the deal would create a bad precedent.
“Should the court enter the proposed settlement, the state will have been given carte blanche to at any future time abrogate not only its obligations, but the laws upon which ordinary people must rely to function day to day and to plan their futures,” Weizenbaum said.
If approved by Taft-Carter and the General Assembly, the settlement will preserve 90 percent of the savings from a 2011 state pension overhaul. The fairness hearing is expected to continue for two to four more days.