Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Comptroller has exclusive authority to determine the validity of a beneficiary designation on an application for death benefits, which determination must be supported by substantial evidence


The Comptroller has exclusive authority to determine the validity of a beneficiary designation on an application for death benefits, which determination must be supported by substantial evidence
Close v Nitido, 2016 NY Slip Op 00407, Appellate Division, Third Department

Eric M. Close’s father, William Close [Decedent], died in January 2012. Decedent's mother, Peggy Eythe, was listed as his primary beneficiary on the last designation of beneficiary form filed with the New York State Employees' Retirement System, [ERS] dated November 17, 2011. On a previous designation of beneficiary form, dated July 26, 2010, Close was listed as Decedent's primary beneficiary. After Decedent's death and upon being informed that he was no longer a primary beneficiary of Decedent's death benefits, Close filed an application for Decedent’s death benefits with ERS and requested an investigation and a hearing into whether Eythe submitted a fraudulent designation of beneficiary form.

ERS informed Close that its records indicated that Decedent had submitted a notarized change of beneficiary form and that payment would be made in accordance with the last valid designation.

At the administrative hearing Close indicated that “despite his knowledge that Decedent had been diagnosed with stage four cancer, [he] had not visited Decedent — who lived in the same state and sometimes the same city — for approximately five months leading up to Decedent's death. Among the reasons given by Close “for his lack of consistent contact with Decedent prior to Decedent's death” was that he was busy "trying to inherit [an] apartment" from his recently deceased grandmother.

In contrast, as the Appellate Division’s decision notes, Eythe, the primary beneficiary of the 2011 designation of beneficiary form filed with ERS, had moved in with Decedent to help care for him. Further, although Close’s handwriting expert opined that the signature on the 2011 designation of beneficiary form was forged, Decedent’s attorney testified to the contrary, stating that he had witnessed Decedent sign the 2011 change of beneficiary form and that he then notarized that form for the Decedent.

The Hearing Officer found that Close's testimony and the testimony of his witnesses were less credible than the witnesses called by ERS and determined that Close had failed to meet his burden of establishing that the 2011 designation was invalid. The Comptroller accepted in its entirety the Hearing Officer's determination and, as a result, denied Close's application for designation as the beneficiary of Decedent’s death benefits.

Close initiated Article 78 proceeding challenging Comptroller's determination and Supreme Court, finding there was an issue of substantial evidence present, transferred the action to the Appellate Division.

Initially Appellate Division explained that [1] the Comptroller has exclusive authority to determine the validity of beneficiary designations on applications for death benefits, and each such  determination must be supported by substantial evidence and [2] an individual challenging the Comptroller's determination had the burden of proving that the beneficiary designation accepted by the Comptroller was invalid.

Given the eyewitness testimony regarding validity of Decedent's signature on the 2011 designation form, the Appellate Division said that there was “compelling evidence” explaining Decedent's motivation for changing his beneficiary from Close to Eythe and, giving due deference to the Comptroller’s credibility determinations, found that substantial evidence supported the Comptroller decision.

The 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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