September 09, 2010

Determining the compensation of the officers of a town

Determining the compensation of the officers of a town
Taney v Town of Waterloo, NYS App. Div., 245 A.D.2d 1079, Motion for leave to appeal denied, 91 N.Y.2d 957

Although a Town Board may determine the compensation to be paid a Town Justice, its decision to pay its justices at different rates may raise a federal “equal protection” issue. The Taney decision is an example of such a situation.

After Alfred C. Taney was reelected Waterloo Town Justice in 1996, the Town Board voted to reduce his salary from $8,975 to $1,200. It kept the salary being paid to its other Town Justice, who was then in the middle of his term of office, at $8,975. In 1997, the Town Board again considered the compensation being paid to its Town Justices. Taney’s salary was kept at $1,200; the salary of the other Town Justice’s was increased 3 percent. Taney filed a suit pursuant to Article 78 [Article 78, Civil Practice Law and Rules], contending that the Board’s actions violated his Constitutional rights under 42 USC 1983.

Seneca County Supreme Court Justice Harvey decided that Board’s 1997 salary determinations were arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of its discretion. The Court directed the Board to set Taney’s 1997 salary at “a fair and equitable amount.”

On appeal the Appellate Division commented that, pursuant to Section 27 of the Town Law, a Town Board has the power to set the salaries of its Town Justices and it is not obligated to pay all justices the same rate of compensation. Accordingly, the Court concluded that “there is nothing illegal per se in the Town Board’s 1997 decision to pay [Taney] a salary different from the other Town Justice [and] the amount of that salary is a decision left to the sound discretion of elected Town officials, who ordinarily should not be second-guessed.”

Nevertheless, the Appellate Division rejected the Board’s argument that Taney’s $1,200 salary was consistent with the salaries of Town Justices in other towns and that Taney was not given a raise in 1997 because of his reduced caseload.

Technical issues figured prominently in the decision. While “the determination of a Town Justice’s salary ... is properly the subject of a CPLR article 78 proceeding,” the Appellate Division held that:

1. The merits of the Board’s 1996 decision were not properly before the lower court because the Statute of Limitations for filing an Article 78 petition challenging the Board’s 1996 action had expired; and

2. The lower court should have considered Taney’s allegations concerning the Constitutionality of the Board’s 1996 action as the controlling “three-year Statute of Limitations with respect to the 42 USC 1983 cause of action ... has not expired.”

Accordingly, said the Court, “whether [Taney’s] constitutional rights were violated by the [Board’s] 1996 salary determination may be litigated in the context of that cause of action,” citing Benjamin v Town of Fenton, 892 F Supp 64.

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