October 22, 2010

Recovering missing public funds

Recovering missing public funds
Utica Mutual Insurance Co., as the Subrogee of the Town of Sand Lake v. Laura Avery, 261 AD2d 802, motion for leave to appeal denied, 93 NY2d 818

From time to time, a public employee resigns from his or her position after some money is found to be missing. The Utica Mutual decision provides some insights as to what might follow such an event.

A State audit had revealed discrepancies in the financial records of the Town of Sand Lake’s Justice Court, including missing funds in excess of $3,000. Town officials were sufficiently convinced that the clerk of its justice court, Laura Avery, was responsible for the loss that it demanded, and received, her resignation. It later was able to ascertain the precise amount that was missing -- $3,648 -- and filed a claim with its insurance company, Utica Mutual, for the loss. Utica Mutual paid the town $3,648.

Utica, as the town’s subrogee [standing in the place of], then sued Avery to recover the money it paid to the town. Instead of filing an answer, Avery moved to dismiss Utica’s action on the ground it was untimely. A State Supreme Court judge agreed and applying the six-year Statute of Limitations (CPLR 213 (a),[1]), dismissed Utica Mutual’s claim as time barred.

Utica Mutual appealed and lost. The Appellate Division said that “the sole issue on this appeal is whether Supreme Court correctly determined the date on which plaintiff’s cause of action accrued.” Utica had argued that the limitations period did not begin to run until the date on which Sand Lake received the Department of Audit and Control’s official audit since prior to that date the Town’s liability for the missing funds was not fixed.

Not so, said the Appellate Division, affirming the lower court’s ruling. It said that Utica’s cause of action accrued when all events essential to the claim were present so that Utica would be entitled to judicial relief. Presumably Utica would have won its lawsuit against Avery to recover the money it had paid to Sand Lake had it filed a timely action.

The Appellate Division suggested that even a shorter statute of limitations might apply is such situations, commenting that “arguably, the mishandling of the funds in question fits the definition of conversion” [stealing] ... for which the shorter three-year Statute of Limitations of CPLR 214 (3) would apply.” However, both parties adopt the position that, in the absence of a specific Statute of Limitations for an action to recover embezzled funds, the applicable limitations period is six years pursuant to CPLR 213 (1).
NYPPL

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