When the City Goes Broke: Pensions, Retirees, and Municipal Bankruptcies

Source: Kevin M. Lewis, Congressional Research Service, CRS Legal Sidebar, LSB10116, April 10, 2018

In recent years, a significant number of cities, towns, and other municipalities in the United States have found themselves increasingly unable to pay their debts. In order to offer municipalities relief from many types of debts they cannot repay, Chapter 9 of the Bankruptcy Code authorizes certain municipalities to file for bankruptcy. However, filing for bankruptcy may adversely affect the municipality’s creditors, especially beneficiaries of underfunded municipal retirement plans (who, along with bondholders, often hold “the lion’s share” of a municipality’s financial obligations). Because a number of municipalities face a “dramatic and growing shortfall in public pension funds,” many “firefighters, teachers, police officers, and other public employees” who purportedly have “a right to pension benefits at retirement” face a significant risk that their pensions will ultimately not be fully repaid. The fact that public pensions, unlike their private counterparts, are neither subject to the “vesting and funding rules imposed by” the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 nor “protected by the federal pension guarantee program operated by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation” could, according to some commentators, further exacerbate that risk. Moreover, because courts presiding over municipal bankruptcy cases have generally been “amenable to modifying pension debt in bankruptcy,” retirees’ pension benefits may potentially be significantly curtailed when a municipality declares bankruptcy. Although many Chapter 9 debtors have ultimately opted not to cut pensions “for political or practical reasons,” courts and commentators generally accept that, under certain circumstances, municipalities “have the legal ability to shed pension debt” in bankruptcy if they so choose.

This Sidebar first explains how, under current bankruptcy law, Chapter 9 debtors have significant freedom to modify their outstanding pension obligations through the bankruptcy process. The Sidebar then explores proposals to alter the legal principles governing the adjustment of municipal pensions in bankruptcy….