Sonoma County health care retiree suit reinstated

A federal appeals court has reinstated a lawsuit brought by retired Sonoma County government employees who charged that the Board of Supervisors reneged on a pledge to provide lifetime health benefits.

Monday's 2-1 opinion by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals means the group representing about 1,500 former county workers can try once again to make its case in federal district court.

"You can't break your promises just because you don't have the money," said Jeff Lewis, an attorney for the Sonoma County Association of Retired Employees, which filed the suit.

Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt downplayed the significance of the ruling and said the county remained on strong legal ground. Bruce Goldstein, county counsel, said he was encouraged by parts of the ruling, which suggest the county can't be made to suffer such an immense financial impact without express action of the board.

"Even if the plaintiffs file a second amended complaint, we think a court is unlikely to find a vested right existed," Goldstein said in a statement.

The retirees' suit charged that the board violated its long-standing agreement to pay for "all or substantially all" health benefits when it cut them to $500 a month in 2008.

In 2010, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken dismissed the suit, saying the county never expressly promised to continue the subsidy in perpetuity.

But the California Supreme Court ruled otherwise in a similar case in Orange County last year, saying local government practices can add up to a binding commitment.

Based on that decision, the federal appeals judges agreed that the Sonoma County retirees might be able to provide evidence that the benefits were implied. They agreed to let the group submit an amended complaint to the lower court.

However, they warned of a "heavy burden" of proof that must include documents, such as resolutions and memos, from the board. And one judge said no such agreement ever existed.

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