Judge OKs jury trial in lawsuit over Rhode Island's landmark pension overhaul

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NEWPORT, Rhode Island — A jury may now decide the fate of a landmark pension overhaul that was designed to save Rhode Island $4 billion over 20 years, if a lawsuit over the changes isn't settled first.

A judge on Tuesday approved the state's request that jurors decide the lawsuit's outcome.

Lawyers for the unions and retirees suing the state had asked Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter to use her authority to put the law back the way it was before the 2011 overhaul, which increased retirement ages and cut back cost-of-living increases, among other measures.

The overhaul has been used as a model for other states as they change their own pension systems to deal with soaring costs.

Taft-Carter ruled that the state was not constitutionally guaranteed a jury trial but said public policy and legal precedent mean the case should go before a jury. She scheduled a trial date for April 20.

Attorney John Tarantino, who represents the state, said after the hearing that he has "a lot of confidence in the jury system."

"I believe they, in large part, get it right," he said.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Douglas Steele, said he respects the court's ruling and will proceed accordingly. Carly Beauvais Iafrate, an attorney representing about 7,000 retirees, said she would not comment on the decision.

Earlier this year, the state had agreed to a tentative settlement with unions and retirees that pulled back on some of the changes but preserved most of the overhaul. However, the settlement had to be approved by six groups of plaintiffs and it ultimately was rejected after police union members voted it down.

Taft-Carter denied the state's motion to dismiss the lawsuit in April, paving the way for the original court challenge to move ahead.

State officials including Gov.-elect Gina Raimondo and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed have indicated they still hope to settle the lawsuit to avoid years of wrangling in court and an uncertain outcome.

Outgoing Gov. Lincoln Chafee said he too is pleased with the decision.

"Nevertheless, I continue to hope that settlement discussions will be revisited when the General Assembly returns in January," he said in a statement.

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