Nahmod Law

Are Contract Clause Violations Actionable Under Section 1983? A Circuit Split

The Contract Clause, U.S. Const. Art I, § 10, provides: “No State shall … pass any … Law Impairing the Obligation of Contracts.”

The Supreme Court has developed a three-part Contract Clause test: (1) does the state law operate as a substantial impairment of the contractual relationship; (2) if so, does the state have a significant, legitimate public purpose behind the regulation; and (3), if so, is the adjustment of the rights and responsibilities of the contracting parties based on reasonable conditions and is it appropriate to the public purposes justifying the state regulation? See, generally, Energy Reserves Group, Inc. v. Kansas Power and Light Co., 459 U.S. 400 (1983).

Are Contract Clause violations actionable under §1983? Can a tenured teacher use §1983 to bring an action for violation of the Contract Clause arising out of a statute or ordinance that cuts back on the rights of tenured teachers in layoffs? Or can retirees use §1983 to bring an action for violation of the Contract Clause challenging a statute or ordinance that temporarily replaces their retiree health care benefits with monthly stipends that can be used to purchase individual health care coverage? With financial pressures arising out of public pension debt growing more pressing nationally every day, the answer to these questions may be important.

There is currently a split in the circuits on this issue. The Ninth Circuit has ruled that Contract Clause violations are indeed actionable under §1983. It stated: “The right of a party not to have a State, or a political subdivision thereof, impair its obligations of contract is a right secured by the first article of the United States Constitution. A deprivation of that right may therefore give rise to a cause of action under section 1983.” Southern California Gas Co. v. City of Santa Ana, 336 F.3d 885, 887 (9th Cir. 2003) (per curiam).

In contrast, the Fourth and Sixth Circuits have ruled that Contract Clause violations are not actionable under §1983. See Crosby v. City of Gastonia, 635 F. 3d 634 (4th Cir. 2011) and Kaminski v. Coulter, 2017 WL 3138308 (6th Cir. 2017). Among other things, these decisions noted that the only Supreme Court case on point had ruled this way long ago under §1983’s predecessor statute. Carter v. Greenhow, 114 U.S. 317 (1885).

Interestingly, the Seventh Circuit, in Elliott v. Board of School Trustees, 2017 WL 5988226 (7th Cir. 2017), assumed, without having to decide the issue in the case before it, that Contract Clause violations are actionable for damages under §1983. It then went on to find that a new Indiana law that cut back on the rights of tenured teachers in layoffs violated the Contract Clause rights of a teacher who had tenure before the law took effect.

The better view is that Contract Clause violations are actionable under §1983. As the Seventh Circuit pointed out in Elliott, Supreme Court and other opinions have read the 1885 Carter decision “as based more narrowly on the way the particular claim in that case was pled and the failure to satisfy the amount-in-controversy requirement applicable at the time.”

More important, there is no persuasive reason to exclude Contract Clause violations from the “deprivation of any rights … secured by the Constitution” language of §1983 itself.

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Written by snahmod

April 4, 2018 at 10:41 am

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