PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - R.I. Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter ordered mediation talks on Tuesday to seek a resolution to the union lawsuit challenging Rhode Island's landmark state pension overhaul.
The judge met with lawyers representing the state and organized labor in a pretrial conference on Tuesday morning, and the parties agreed "to try mediation to resolve their differences," court spokesman Craig Berke said.
The lawsuit will continue to move toward a trial, although a date hasn't been set yet, Berke said. Lawyers are scheduled to meet with the judge on Feb. 1 for a status conference "to report on the progress of their talks," he said.
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"We are very pleased," Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island teachers union, told WPRI.com. "We have always said the only way to get this resolved was to get both parties to sit down and work it out. We think this is exactly what we are looking for."
Taft-Carter's order comes after weeks of back-and-forth between Treasurer Gina Raimondo, who championed the law, and Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who signed it, about whether the state should try to negotiate a settlement. Chafee has argued the state should seek a solution outside of court, while Raimondo has countered that there should only be talks if they were ordered by Taft-Carter.
In a statement Tuesday, Raimondo said the state will participate in the court-ordered mediation "in good faith."
"I have great respect for the judicial system and it is important to let this process unfold in an orderly and transparent way," she said. "We continue to believe the state has a very strong case and a terrific legal team."
Chafee released a statement stating he is "pleased" by the order because "there simply is no harm in talking."
"A negotiated settlement that is satisfactory to both sides could be in the best financial interest of the Rhode Island taxpayers," Chafee said. "Such an outcome would be a favorable alternative to costly, uncertain litigation and – worst of all – the 'fiscal calamity' of a potential loss in court."
Taft-Carter, who will not be involved in the mediation, has appointed the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) to oversee the discussions. The service is an independent government agency perhaps best-known for overseeing mediation in professional athlete labor disputes such as the NHL lockdown.
George Cohen, director of the FMCS, confirmed on Tuesday that both parties in Rhode Island agreed to Taft-Carter's order for mediation of the pension lawsuit under the "auspices" of his agency.
"Due to the sensitivity of this high-profile dispute and consistent with the agency's longstanding practice, we will
have no further comment on the schedule, location, or substance of this mediation," Cohen said in a brief statement issued Tuesday afternoon.
The unions do not have any details about when mediation will start, Walsh said. But he expects January to be busy because the judge has requested the update on Feb. 1, and has previously suggested a trial could begin May 20 if the two sides don't resolve their differences.
Rhode Island's public-sector unions and retirees went to court in June to challenge the pension law, which took effect on July 1. The changes have drawn national attention for saving billions of dollars by suspending retirees' cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) until the pension system is 80% funded and moving most current employees into a hybrid pension plan.
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