Thursday, December 17, 2015

Removing a public officer holding an office for specific term pursuant to a “municipal cooperative agreement” before his or her term of office expires for other than cause


Removing a public officer holding an office for specific term pursuant to a “municipal cooperative agreement” before his or her term of office expires for other than cause
Rubeor v Town of Wright, 2015 NY Slip Op 08895, Appellate Division, Third Department

Steven Rubeor was appointed to fill the unexpired term of his predecessor as Assessor of the Town of Wright [Wright], the Town of Esperance and the Town of Schoharie, each town having entered into a municipal cooperative agreement establishing a coordinated assessment program [CAP]. Under a CAP, "a single assessor [is] appointed to hold the office of assessor in all the participating assessing units."

In December 2012, prior to the expiration of Rubeor 's term, Wright’s Town Board [Board] resolved to withdraw from the CAP and appointed Susan Crosby as the Town's interim Assessor. Rubeor initiated a combined CPLR Article 78 proceeding and action pursuant to 42 USC §1983, a federal civil rights law,* asserting that the Board improperly removed him from office, depriving him of a vested property right. Supreme Court granted Rubeor’s petition to the extent of annulling the Board's determination to remove him as Wright’s assessor, concluding that he was entitled to complete his term, which ended on September 30, 2013. Wright appealed.

The Appellate Division affirmed the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Noting that “This dispute raises an issue of first impression as to whether a town's withdrawal from a CAP truncates an assessor's term of office,” the court said that: 

[1] there is no dispute here that Wright is required to appoint an assessor, whose term of office shall be six years; and 

[2] an assessor is a public officer who ordinarily may only be removed from office for cause under Public Officers Law §36. 

The question presented here, said the Appellate Division “is whether a CAP changes this structure.”

While the statute provides that an assessor's term shall be for six years, it further provides that a member of a CAP may withdraw from a CAP at any time, provided that it does so at least 45 days before the next taxable status date. However, the said the court, “The statute is otherwise silent as to what happens to an assessor's term when, as here, a CAP member opts to withdraw prior to the expiration of the [assessor’s] term.”

In construing a statute the Appellate Division said the court must:

1. Determine the Legislature's intention, giving due effect to the plain meaning of unambiguous statutory language; and

2. Where the statute has “competing provisions,” the statute must be construed “as a whole and that its various sections must be considered with reference to one another."

Noting that an amendment to the Real Property Tax Law §579 in 2009, among other things, clarified that an assessor appointed in a CAP receives a six-year term and shortened the notice period for a CAP member to withdraw from the CAP, the Appellate Division concluded that the adoption of these companion provisions demonstrated that the Legislature intended to keep an assessor's six-year term intact even where a CAP member elects to withdraw from the CAP. Accordingly, insofar as the assessor is concerned, the effect of withdrawal from the CAP “is merely delayed until the assessor's term expires, at which time the assessing unit is free to choose a new assessor, without approval from any other assessing unit” in the CAP.**

Although in an 1997 the Department of Taxation and Finance's counsel  opined that the adoption of a CAP "may truncate the term of office of an incumbent appointed assessor,"*** the Appellate Division observed “that is not the situation presented here,” and, more significantly, commented “nor is that letter opinion binding, particularly in view of the 2009 amendment to RPTL 579.”

The bottom line: the court held that Rubeor’s term of office did not end when the Town Board adopted a resolution to withdraw from the CAP and that Rubeor held a right to continued employment until the expiration of his term of office.

* Wright removed the action to the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York but that court abstained from exercising jurisdiction pending the resolution of the underlying statutory dispute in state court, staying Rubeor's claims pursuant to 42 USC §1983.

**As Rubeor's term of office had since ended, Supreme Court had declined to reinstate him to the position as Town Assessor for Wright. The Appellate Division said that “Given that [Rubeor] did not appeal from the determination and expressly seeks to affirm the judgment in his brief, we do not address the corollary issue of back pay.”

*** 10 Opinions of Counsel SBRPS 35 - Posted on the Internet at:


The Rujbeor decision is posted on the Internet at:

Handbooks focusing on State and Municipal Public Personnel Law continue to be available for purchase via the links provided below:

The Discipline Book at http://thedisciplinebook.blogspot.com/

Challenging Adverse Personnel Decisions at http://nypplarchives.blogspot.com

The Disability Benefits E-book: at http://section207.blogspot.com/

Layoff, Preferred Lists at http://nylayoff.blogspot.com/

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