438 U.S. 234 (1978), 77-747, Allied Structural Steel Co. v. Spannaus

Docket Nº:No. 77-747
Citation:438 U.S. 234, 98 S.Ct. 2716, 57 L.Ed.2d 727
Party Name:Allied Structural Steel Co. v. Spannaus
Case Date:June 28, 1978
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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438 U.S. 234 (1978)

98 S.Ct. 2716, 57 L.Ed.2d 727

Allied Structural Steel Co.

v.

Spannaus

No. 77-747

United States Supreme Court

June 28, 1978

Argued April 25, 1978

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

FOR THE DISTRICT OF MINNESOTA

Syllabus

Appellant, an Illinois corporation, maintained an office in Minnesota with 30 employees. Under appellant's pension plan, adopted in 1963 and qualified under § 401 of the Internal Revenue Code, employees were entitled to retire and receive a pension at age 65 regardless of length of service, and an employee's pension right became vested if he satisfied certain conditions as to length of service and age. Appellant was the sole contributor to the pension trust fund, and each year made contributions to the fund based on actuarial predictions of eventual payout needs. But the plan neither required appellant to make specific contributions nor imposed any sanction on it for failing to make adequate contributions, and appellant retained a right not only to amend the plan, but also to terminate it at any time and for any reason. In 1974, Minnesota enacted the Private Pension Benefits Protection Act (Act), under which a private employer of 100 employees or more (at least one of whom was a Minnesota resident) who provided pension benefits under a plan meeting the qualifications of § 401 of the Internal Revenue Code, was subject to a "pension funding charge" if he terminated the plan or closed a Minnesota office. The charge was assessed if the pension funds were insufficient to cover full pensions for all employees who had worked at least 10 years, and periods of employment prior to the effective date of the Act were to be included in the 10-year employment criterion. Shortly thereafter, in a move planned before passage of the Act, appellant closed its Minnesota office, and several of its employees, who were then discharged, had no vested pension rights under appellant's plan, but had worked for appellant for 10 years or more, thus qualifying as pension obligees under the Act. Subsequently, the State notified appellant that it owed a pension funding charge of $185,000 under the Act. Appellant then brought suit in Federal District Court for injunctive and declaratory relief, claiming that the Act unconstitutionally impaired its contractual obligations to its employees under its pension plan, but the court upheld the Act as applied to appellant.

Held: The application of the Act to appellant violates the Contract Clause of the Constitution, which provides that "[n]o State shall . . . pass any . . . Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts." Pp. 240-251.

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(a) While the Contract Clause does not operate to obliterate the police power of the [98 S.Ct. 2718] States, it does impose some limits upon the power of a State to abridge existing contractual relationships, even in the exercise of its otherwise legitimate police power.

Legislation adjusting the rights and responsibilities of contracting parties must be upon reasonable conditions and of a character appropriate to the public purpose justifying its adoption.

United States Trust Co. v. New Jersey, 431 U.S. 1, 22. Pp. 242-244.

(b) The impact of the Act upon appellant's contractual obligations was both substantial and severe. Not only did the Act retroactively modify the compensation that appellant had agreed to pay its employees from 1963 to 1974, but it did so by changing appellant's obligations in an area where the element of reliance was vital -- the funding of a pension plan. Moreover, the retroactive state-imposed vesting requirement was applied only to those employers who terminated their pension plans or who, like appellant, closed their Minnesota offices, thus forcing the employer to make all the retroactive changes in its contractual obligations at one time. Pp. 244-247.

(c) The Act does not possess the attributes of those state laws that have survived challenge under the Contract Clause. It was not even purportedly enacted to deal with a broad, generalized economic or social problem, cf. Home Building & Loan Assn. v. Blaisdell, 290 U.S. 398, 445, but has an extremely narrow focus and enters an area never before subject to regulation by the State. Pp. 247-250.

449 F.Supp. 644, reversed.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and POWELL, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which WHITE and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 251. BLACKMUN, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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STEWART, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue in this case is whether the application of Minnesota's Private Pension Benefits Protection Act1 to the appellant violates the Contract Clause of the United States Constitution.

I

In 1974, appellant Allied Structural Steel Co. (company), a corporation with its principal place of business in Illinois, maintained an office in Minnesota with 30 employees. Under the company's general pension plan, adopted in 1963 and qualified as a single-employer plan under § 401 of the Internal Revenue Code, 26 U.S.C. § 401 (1976 ed.),2 salaried employees were covered as follows: at age 65, an employee was entitled to retire and receive a monthly pension generally computed by multiplying 1% of his average monthly earnings by the total number of his years of employment with the company.3 Thus, an employee aged 65 or more could retire without satisfying any particular length-of-service requirement, but the size of his pension would reflect the length of his service with the company.4 An employee could also

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become entitled to receive a pension, payable in full at age 65, if he met any one of the following requirements: (1) he had worked 15 years for the company and reached the age of 60; or (2) he was at least 55 years old and the sum of his age and his years of service with the company was at least 75; or (3) he was less than 55 years old but the sum of his age and his years of service with the company was at least 80. Once an employee satisfied any one of these conditions, his pension right became vested in the sense that any subsequent termination of employment would not affect his right to receive a monthly pension when he reached 65. Those employees who quit or were [98 S.Ct. 2719] discharged before age 65 without fulfilling one of the other three conditions did not acquire any pension rights.

The company was the sole contributor to the pension trust fund, and each year it made contributions to the fund based on actuarial predictions of eventual payout needs. Although those contributions, once made, were irrevocable in the sense that they remained part of the pension trust fund, the plan neither required the company to make specific contributions nor imposed any sanction on it for failing to contribute adequately to the fund.

The company not only retained a virtually unrestricted right to amend the plan in whole or in part, but was also free to terminate the plan and distribute the trust assets at any time and for any reason. In the event of a termination, the assets of the fund were to go, first, to meet the plan's obligation to those employees already retired and receiving pensions; second, to those eligible for retirement; and finally, if any balance remained, to the other employees covered under the plan whose pension rights had not yet vested.5 Employees within each of these categories were assured payment only to the extent of the pension assets.

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The plan expressly stated:

No employee shall have any right to, or interest in, any part of the Trust's assets upon termination of his employment or otherwise, except as provided from time to time under this Plan, and then only to the extent of the benefits payable to such employee out of the assets of the Trust. All payments of benefits as provided for in this Plan shall be made solely out of the assets of the Trust and neither the employer, the trustee, nor any member of the Committee shall be liable therefor in any manner.

The plan also specifically advised employees that neither its existence nor any of its terms were to be understood as implying any assurance that employees could not be dismissed from their employment with the company at any time.

In sum, an employee who did not die, did not quit, and was not discharged before meeting one of the requirements of the plan would receive a fixed pension at age 65 if the company remained in business and elected to continue the pension plan in essentially its existing form.

On April 9, 1974, Minnesota enacted the law here in question, the Private Pension Benefits Protection Act, Minn.Stat. §§ 181B.01-181B.17. Under the Act, a private employer of 100 employees or more -- at least one of whom was a Minnesota resident -- who provided pension benefits under a plan meeting the qualifications of § 401 of the Internal Revenue Code, was subject to a "pension funding charge" if he either terminated the plan or closed a Minnesota office.6 The charge was assessed if the pension funds were not sufficient to cover full pensions for all employees who had worked at least 10 years. The Act required the employer to satisfy the deficiency by purchasing deferred annuities, payable to the employees at their normal retirement age. A separate provision

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specified that periods of employment prior to the effective date of the Act were to be included in the 10-year employment criterion.7

During [98 S.Ct. 2720] the summer of 1974, the company began closing its Minnesota office. On July 31, it discharged 11 of its 30 Minnesota employees, and the following month it notified the Minnesota Commissioner of Labor and...

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