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May 7, 2014

The State’s reduction of its employer contribution for health insurance premiums for judges was an unconstitutional diminution of judicial compensation


The State’s reduction of its employer contribution for health insurance premiums for judges was an unconstitutional diminution of judicial compensation
Bransten v State of New York, 2014 NY Slip Op 03214, Appellate Division, First Department

Sitting and retired members of the New York State Judiciary challenged the State’s recent decrease in its employer contribution to the cost of the judges' health insurance premiums, contending that it violated the Compensation Clause of the New York State Constitution which provides "compensation [of a judge] shall be established by law and shall not be diminished during the term of office for which he or she was elected or appointed."*

The Appellate Division agreed, finding that the reduced contribution, which in turn increased the amounts withheld from judicial salaries as employee contribution towards health insurance premiums, constitutes an unconstitutional diminution of judicial compensation.

The court explained that the reduction in the State’s employer contribution for health insurance premiums occurred in 2011 when the State, faced with a serious budget shortfall, threatened to lay off thousands of workers unless employees in State's several collective bargaining units made wage and benefit concessions that included bearing more of the cost of their health insurance premium.

The State Legislature in August 2011 amended Civil Service Law §167.8 to provide that “The president [of the Civil Service Commission], with the approval of the director of the budget, may extend the modified state cost of premium or subscription charges for employees or retirees** not subject to an agreement referenced above and shall promulgate the necessary rules or regulations to implement this provision.”

The President, with the State Budget Director's approval, then adopted a Regulation that reduced the State's contribution for health insurance premiums not only for employees in State’s several negotiating units that had agreed to the reductions through collective bargaining, but also for some “nonunionized employees” and retirees of the State as the employer.

In accordance with these new Regulations, in September 2011 the State notified judges that it would reduce its contribution to sitting judges' health insurance premiums by 6% and reduce its contributions to retired judges' health insurance premiums by 2%.

The State argued that the Compensation Clause does not prohibit the State from decreasing its contributions to the health insurance premiums because any reduction to judicial compensation was "indirect" and nondiscriminatory.

Supreme Court, however, found that the State's reduced contribution amounted to a direct diminution of judicial compensation because it increased the amount withheld from judicial salaries.

On appeal, the State did not contend that reducing its contribution for health insurance premiums did not directly diminish judges' compensation but rather that its contribution to judges' health insurance premiums is not "compensation" within the meaning of the Compensation Clause.

The Appellate Division rejected that argument, explaining “it is settled law that employees' compensation includes all things of value received from their employers, including wages, bonuses, and benefits” and the Appellate Division, Second Department has expressly found that “health insurance benefits are a component of a judge's compensation,” citing Roe v Board of Trustees of the Village of Bellport, 65 AD3d 1211.

In contrast to State employees who either consented to the State's reduced contribution in exchange for immunity from layoffs or were otherwise compensated by the State's promise of job security, the decision points out that judges were forced to make increased contributions to their health care insurance premiums without receiving any benefits in exchange. The Appellate Division noted that the judiciary “had no power to negotiate with the State with respect to the decrease in compensation,” and they “received no benefit from the no-layoffs promise because their terms of office were either statutorily or constitutionally mandated.” 

Thus, said the court, “§167.8 uniquely discriminates against judges because it imposes a financial burden on them for which they received no compensatory benefit.”***

Accordingly, said the Appellate Division, the State’s motion to dismiss was properly denied by Supreme Court.

* New York State Constitution, Article VI, §25[a]. 

** With respect to retirees, prior to the 2011 amendment to Civil Service Law §167.8 it provided that employer contribution for health insurance premiums may be increased pursuant to the terms of a collective bargaining agreement but that such increase “shall not be applied during retirement.”

*** Much the same argument would apply to retirees of the State as the employer, including retired judges,  who retired prior to the effective date of the President’s Regulation as such retirees are not employees within the meaning of the Taylor Law nor did they receive any benefit with respect to job security as, like sitting judges, retirees cannot be “laid off.”

The Appellate Division's decision is posted on the Internet at:
http://www.nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2014/2014_03214.htm


The Supreme Court's decision is posted on the Internet at:
http://www.nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2013/2013_23175.htm
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