Financial Control Board

The Coming Public Pension Fight

The first in a series on Puerto Rico’s Pensions

 

Last week, the Supervisory Board held its 9th Public Meeting in Fajardo, Puerto Rico. A key item on the agenda, “Discussion of Pension Reform,” was over-shadowed by the pending fight over furloughs, but is perhaps one of the most important items discussed.

 

As many know, one of the critical issues before the Supervisory Board is how to address the future of Puerto Rico’s public pension system and a $49 billion actuarial deficit. In fact, this is one of the reasons Speaker Ryan and the Congressional Republicans insisted on having an expert like Andrew Biggs on the Board. His knowledge of pensions ostensibly would help reform Puerto Rico’s public pension system to become a model for cities and states across the country.

 

What PROMESA Says the Board Must Do

 

Section 211(a) of PROMESA requires the Board, if it determines pensions are underfunded, to conduct an analysis prepared by an independent actuary […] to assist the Oversight Board in evaluating the fiscal and economic impact of the pension cash flows.” The Board hired Pension Trustee Advisors, Inc., a Colorado corporation, for this endeavor in February. To date, we have yet to see any documents or plans generated by this company or produced by the Board.

 

Instead, the government with the support of the Board moved first. Since February, Puerto Rico passed a law to convert the government and its component units into a single employer and although the Board instructed that pensions had to be cut by 10% by fiscal year 2020 in the Fiscal Plan, the Board green-lighted the government to move over $2 billion from the General Fund to the public pension system. At the same time, neither Governor Rosselló nor the Board provided any monies for debt service in FY18. This had the effect of elevating payment of public pensions above secured creditors.

 

Then, on May 21, 2017, the Board filed a Title III bankruptcy petition for the Government Retirement and the Judiciary Retirement Fund. Further, the government passed a measure to transfer $390,480,000 from the Central Government, Judiciary and Teacher’s retirement funds to the General Fund for the payment of pensions, known as RC 188.

 

All of this was done with the Board’s approval, but not without opposition from other stakeholders. On July 27, 2017, Altair Global Credit Opportunities Fund (A), LLC and others filed an adversary proceeding to challenge this action by the Puerto Rican Government. Altair & company claim they have a lien over Government contributions to the retirement fund and that RC188 is null and void; that they hold a secured claim to the full extent of their allowed claim against the ERS; that they hold a secured claim to the full extent of their allowed claim against the Commonwealth and that their lien continues in any Pledged Property transferred to the Commonwealth from the ERS. They also claim that the transfer of the Pledged Property from the ERS to the Commonwealth pursuant to Joint Resolution 188, on its face, constitutes an unconstitutional taking of private property without just compensation within the meaning of the U.S. and P.R. Takings Clauses; and that RC 188 substantially interferes with their contract rights with the ERS in violation of the U.S. and P.R. Contracts Clauses. Finally, they also ask for damages and that PROMESA does not preclude such claim. Since it was filed only recently, we have no idea how Judge Swain will handle it, except that it will be done swiftly.

 

Echoes of the Chrysler-UAW Pension Bailout

 

This strategy by the Board – elevating pensioners over secured bondholders – evokes memories of the Chrysler bankruptcy, which saw the Obama Administration support unsecured UAW pensioners become secured creditors – literally jumping the line ahead of actual secured creditors. The judge in that case was none other than Judge Arthur Gonzalez, the key architect behind the Board’s legal strategy.

 

Neither the Constitution nor PROMESA explicitly do not allow for the payment of public pensions to be put ahead of bondholders, which was the ultimate outcome in the Chrysler case. Now, the PR Supreme Court granted pensioners rights in Bayron Toro v. Serra, 119 D.P.R. 605, 608 (1987), stating that, “Once an employee is retired, when he has complied with all the conditions for his retirement, his pension is not subject to changes or impairments.” However, this precedent is subject to Article VI, Section 8 of the PR Constitution that states:

 

“In case the available revenues including surplus for any fiscal year are insufficient to meet the appropriations made for that year, interest on the public debt and amortization thereof shall first be paid, and other disbursements shall thereafter be made in accordance with the order of priorities established by law.”

 

While Section 201(b)(1)(C) of PROMESA states that the Fiscal Plan must provide adequate funding for public pension systems, Section 201(b)(1)(N) requires the Fiscal Plan to respect the relative lawful priorities or lawful liens, as may be applicable, in the constitution, other laws.”

 

Moreover, the Committee on Natural Resources Report on PROMESA states the following:

 

“The Committee acknowledges the concern as to the ambiguity of the language regarding the funding of public pension systems. To clarify, Section 201(b)(1)(C) tasks the Oversight Board with ensuring fiscal plans ‘provide adequate funding for public pension systems.’ This language should not be interpreted to reprioritize pension liabilities ahead of the lawful priorities or liens of bondholders as established under the territory’s constitution, laws, or other agreements. While this language seeks to provide an adequate level of funding for pension systems, it does not allow for pensions to be unduly favored over other indebtedness in a restructuring.

 

Realizing that creditors and Congress are onto them, the Board has attempted to mask their strategy.

 

In their latest document, Explanatory Memorandum on Pension Reform,” the Board claims, “expenditures are being reduced throughout the Commonwealth’s budget and holders of government bonds are not likely to be repaid in full. Retirement plan participants, like other unsecured creditors, will have a reduction in the amounts paid to them by the Commonwealth.” Board member Ana Matosantos went further, rejecting Christian Sobrino’s claim that Governor Rosselló will fund 100% of the public pensioner’s benefits, stating “honoring 100% of the obligations is not workable.”

 

The Board has shown its hand, and they will face a stiff test before Judge Swain. Congress was clear that funding pensions was important, but not equal to or above existing constitutional and lawful priorities. To date, the Board and Puerto Rico have decided unsecured pensioners have higher priority.

 

Why is the Board and the government putting payment of pensions before payment of public debt in direct contradiction of both PROMESA and the Puerto Rican Constitution? Why is the Board pursuing this legal strategy?

 

I will explore and hope to explain the reasons for this in my series on public pensions in Puerto Rico.

 

 

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Lex Claims Oral Argument April 4, 2017

On April 4, 2017, Judges Howard, Lynch and Barron heard oral arguments in the Lex Claims case, where Judge Besosa had decided the PROMESA stay did not apply to some of the claims, including the validity of COFINA and its alleged lien. 

As usual, right from the start of the Supervisory Board’s argument, the Judges started asking pointed questions. Judge Barron started asking technical questions that boiled down to whether the stay applied to a declaration that Governor Garcia Padilla’s executive order were invalid or preempted. Judge Howard asked if some or all of the causes of action arose after PROMESA was approved. The Board’s lawyers denied this but clearly the Judges are not convinced. Judge Lynch seemed concerned about other cases arising but was assured there are none.

 

Judge Howard asked about mediation and was assured it would start next week. When Senior COFINA lawyers started their argument, Judge Barron asked why the declaration of the Executive order was preempted. COFINA had to admit that such declaration is not an issue of control.

 

Ambac came next for appellants and likened the Lex complaint to a bank in state court attempting to determine where income should go for a bankruptcy debtor but this did not bar Judge Barron from asking the same question as to declaratory judgment. We can see a pattern there.

 

Once Lex Claims came to argue, it invoked section 303(3) of PROMESA claiming this was not precluded by the stay. Judge Lynch, who seems intent on preserving the stay, asked if there was explicit language that pointed that way. Lex conceded there was none but that the overall interpretation of PROMESA showed that. Lynch did not seem convinced. Lex continued arguing that they did not seek control, but Judge Barron challenged this view. Judge Lynch went to the offensive and asked if you filed your complaint, why should we relieve you of it in clear reference to the second amended complaint. Lex answered that it could amend the complaint.

 

From this we may surmise that as the Circuit Court’s stay order stated, the Judges will decide the stay will apply to all of the Lex Claims’ complaint, although Judge Barron could file a partly dissenting opinion or convince them it does not apply to the declaratory judgment sought by appellee. Since I assume the panel will be as swift as it was in the Peaje case, a decision could come down by next week or earlier. If it comes down by next Tuesday, April 11, there would only be 19 days left of the stay.

 

This brings us to another issue. Since it is clear negotiations will start later than April 10, the PROMESA stay which was enacted to afford PR an opportunity to attempt to restructure its debt consensually has been instead used by the Government and the Board to pick and choose winners among bondholders. This may have serious repercussions in the coming Title III as I will discuss in an upcoming posting.

BOARD ATTEMPTS TO APPEAL JUDGE BESOSA’S DECISION IN LEX CLAIMS

 

 

Friday March 3, 2017, the Financial Supervisory Board filed a notice of appeal in the Lex Claims case challenging Judge Besosa’s determination of denying its request for stay https://drive.google.com/file/d/0ByCo6S6fmcDlSDFKSTB1U3ljd28/view This move by the Board is puzzling since the aforementioned order cannot be considered an appealable final decision pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291. As the First Circuit said in the recent decision on Peaje Investment LLC v. García Padilla, at page

 

In the analogous bankruptcy context, we have held that the denial of relief from a stay is not necessarily a final decision sufficient to confer appellate jurisdiction. See In re Atlas IT Exp. Corp., 761 F.3d 177, 185 (1st Cir. 2014). But such a decision is final where it “conclusively decide[s] the fully-developed, unreviewable elsewhere issue that triggered the stay-relief fight.” Id. It rejected the Movants’ substantive arguments, holding that their interests in the collateral were adequately protected. After that ruling, there was nothing left for the district court to do.

Here, different that in Peaje, Judge Besosa has much to do. He has to determine motions to dismiss the substantive claims in the complaint and if he does not, then he has to determine COFINA’s legal standing and whatever implications it may have. It behooves the mind to think the appealed determination is a final order and if it is not, the First Court of Appeals would have no jurisdiction to entertain this appeal. In addition, generally, orders denying a stay of litigation is not a final order, see, Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. v. Mayacamas Corp., 485 U.S. 271, 275 (1988).

Also, 28 U.S.C. 1292(b) does not grant the Appellate Court jurisdiction. It states:

When a district judge, in making in a civil action an order not otherwise appealable under this section, shall be of the opinion that such order involves a controlling question of law as to which there is substantial ground for difference of opinion and that an immediate appeal from the order may materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation, he shall so state in writing in such order. The Court of Appeals which would have jurisdiction of an appeal of such action may thereupon, in its discretion, permit an appeal to be taken from such order, if application is made to it within ten days after the entry of the order: Provided, however, That application for an appeal hereunder shall not stay proceedings in the district court unless the district judge or the Court of Appeals or a judge thereof shall so order.

No such determination has been made by Judge Besosa and the Board has not ask him to do so. Therefore, it is unlikely the First Circuit would grant such an interlocutory appeal review. In addition, the mere filing of the notice of appeal does not stay proceedings and set deadlines such as the March 20, 2017 date for the Board and others to file their “pleadings setting out their claims or defenses for which intervention is sought.”

The real questions is why would the Board resort to filing of a notice of appeal if it is unlikely that it has jurisdiction? In the Peaje litigation, Judge Besosa’s decision was issued November 2, 2016 and the First Circuit decided the appeal by January 11, 2017. If the First Circuit takes the same time to decide the issue, the decision would come down by April 11, 2017, only 19 days before the stay expires on May 1.

The only thing I can imagine is that the Board simply does not want Judge Besosa to decide the issue before the stay expires is that he will not issue an opinion and order if the First Circuit entertains the appeal and by the time there is a decision. Even if the Board loses, its is unlikely that Judge Besosa would decide before the stay expires and on May 2, 2017, the whole Government of PR would be in Title III and all litigation would be stayed. The Board can parade this scenario in front of both COFINA and the GO’s during the Title VI negotiations and try to convince them to come to an agreement. Let’s see what happens.