When members of the North Carolina Highway Patrol were hired, their wages were covered by a state statute. Among other things, the statute provided that troopers “shall be granted a salary increase in an amount corresponding to the increments between steps within the salary range.” The pay schedule in the statute also provided that during their employment, the pay of troopers would increase on a “regular, scheduled, graduated basis” in order for them to reach “top pay” within a six- to seven-year time frame.
Between 2009 and 2013, the North Carolina General Assembly suspended anticipated future salary increases and pay step movement for troopers. A group of troopers sued, claiming they had a contractual right to the wage increases.
The North Carolina Court of Appeals rejected the lawsuit. The Court relied on one of its prior decisions, which involved a group of North Carolina magistrates who alleged that upon hiring they had been promised future pay increases in accordance with a salary schedule set out in a different state statute. In the case, the Court had held that “there is a strong presumption that a statute does not create contractual rights. Construing a statute to create contractual rights in the absence of an expression of unequivocal intent would be at best ill-advised, binding the hands of future sessions of the legislature and obstructing or preventing subsequent revisions and repeals. We are deeply reluctant to limit drastically the essential powers of a legislative body by finding a contract created by statute without compelling supporting evidence.”
The Court found that the magistrate’s decision applied fully to troopers, and concluded that even in light of the specific terms of the statutes governing their pay, the troopers had no right to step increases or other raises. The Court reasoned: “We are bound by our decision in the magistrate’s case and are compelled to hold that the troopers did not possess a vested right to the salary increases referenced in the pay statute. It is clear to this Court that the terms of the contract are established at the time the benefits vest…Because the troopers’ benefits did not vest prior to the time that the legislature altered the statutory benefit scheme, they failed to state any complaint upon which relief could be granted.”
Terry v. State of North Carolina, 2017 WL 491930 (N.C. App. 2017).