Concerning the Doctrine of Primary Jurisdiction
Donato v Plainview-Old Bethpage CSD, 286 AD2d 388
The Doctrine of Primary Jurisdiction was the underpinning of a decision by a State Supreme Court justice in the Donato case -- a case involving an educator's claim that she was eligible for reinstatement from a preferred list.
As the Appellate Division noted, the Doctrine of Primary Jurisdiction “applies where a claim is originally cognizable in the courts, and comes into play whenever enforcement of the claim requires the resolution of issues which, under a regulatory scheme, have been placed within the special competence of an administrative body.”*
In other words, although the court has original jurisdiction, questions involving the exercise of an administrative body's special competence or expertise is to be referred to that body for an initial determination.
The doctrine of primary jurisdiction, the court explained, is intended to coordinate the relationship between courts and administrative agencies so that, among other things, the agency's views on factual and technical issues can be made available to the courts where the matter before the court concerns issues that are within the agency's specialized field.
According to the ruling, in 1991 Linda Donato's position at the District's Mattlin Middle School -- Social Studies Chairperson, Grades 5-8 -- was abolished for budgetary reasons. The district placed Donato's name on a preferred eligible list “for reappointment to a similar position” in accordance with Section 3013(3)(a) of the Education Law.
In 1997 the District created a new position -- District-wide Social Studies Chairperson, Grades K-12. Donato asked to be appointed to this new position from the Social Studies Chairperson, Grades 5-8, preferred list. The District, contending that the preferred list was not appropriate because the duties of the position, which it had abolished, were not similar to those of the new position, refused to use the preferred list to appoint Donato to the vacancy.
Donato, claiming that the two positions were, indeed, similar for the purposes of the certification of the preferred list, initiated an Article 78 action to compel the District to use the preferred list. If the preferred list were appropriate for filling the new position, the District would have to either appoint Donato to the new position or elect to keep it vacant.**
The Supreme Court dismissed the Donato's petition after concluding that the doctrine of primary jurisdiction was applicable. The court said that in this instance the Commissioner of Education should resolve the issue of whether or not the positions are similar for the purposes of certifying the preferred list.
The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court's ruling that the doctrine of primary jurisdiction applied in this case. Citing Hessney v Public Schools of Tarrytowns, 228 AD2d 954, the court pointed out that “the Commissioner of Education has the specialized knowledge and expertise to resolve the factual issue of whether [Donato's] former position and the new position are similar within the meaning of Education Law Section 3013(3)(a).”
Another procedural wrinkle to consider: A statute sometimes allows an individual to file his or her complaint or appeal either (a) with a court or (b) with an administrative body. Examples of such “election” of jurisdiction opportunities:
1. Section 76 of the Civil Service Law provides that an individual may file his or her appeal from a Section 75 disciplinary determination by an appointing authority initially with the civil service commission having jurisdiction within thirty days of the decision or with the court pursuant to Article 78 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules.
2. Section 297.9 of the Executive Law, New York's Human Rights Law, allows a human rights complaint to be initially filed with a court or with the State Division of Human Rights.
* Another doctrine frequently cited in cases challenging an administrative decision is the doctrine of the exhaustion of administrative remedies. In contrast to the doctrine of primary jurisdiction, the “exhaustion doctrine” involves satisfying a condition precedent to initiating litigation where there is an administrative appeal procedure in place. Typically courts will decline to assume jurisdiction if the complaining party has failed to exhaust his or her available administrative remedy.
** As a general rule, reinstatement from a preferred list does not require that the individual serve a probationary period in contrast to all other types of permanent appointment, which typically require that the individual satisfactorily complete a probationary period in order to attain tenure in the title.