October 13, 2017

Resolving an issue of statutory interpretation in the event the statutory language is ambiguous


Resolving an issue of statutory interpretation in the event the statutory language is ambiguous
Feinman v County of Nassau, 2017 NY Slip Op 07110, Appellate Division, Second Department

The plaintiffs [Plaintiffs] in this action had worked at the Office of the Nassau County Attorney from 2002 or 2003 until 2009 and prior to that time had worked for the City of New York or the State of New York. They alleged that they "had been wrongly charged contributions to their health insurance premiums" under color of Nassau County Ordinance No. 543-1995. Plaintiff's petitioned Supreme Court for summary judgment seeking a refund of contributions paid by them and a declaration that they were entitled to receive health insurance coverage without contributions to the cost of premiums.*

Supreme Court determined that the plain language of Ordinance No. 543-1995 required the County to pay the full cost of Plaintiffs' health insurance premiums. The court said that:

1. §4.1(a) of the Ordinance provided that, "[f]or all employees hired prior to January 1, 2002, ... the County shall pay the full cost of the health insurance premium," but "[f]or all employees hired on or after January 1, 2002 and earning a salary greater than thirty thousand ($30,000.00) dollars the employee shall contribute" specified sums towards health insurance premiums;"

2. §5.2 of the ordinance provides that "prior public service to the State and/or a municipal subdivision thereof 'shall be deemed as service to the County for purposes of the benefits provided in this Ordinance,' and an employee 'shall be deemed to have an initial employment date with the County as of the original employment with the State and/or municipal subdivision thereof;'" and

3. After addressing how to credit prior public employment in the event there had been an interruption in public employment, the Ordinance states "All such prior public service to the State and/or a municipal subdivision thereof shall be considered as actual completed service to the County for purposes of this Ordinance and such . . . employee shall be deemed to have a initial employment date that reflects all prior public service form [sic] which appropriate benefits otherwise provided in this Ordinance shall be computed."

Nassau appealed the Supreme Court decision and its granting summary judgment to Plaintiffs. The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court's ruling, explaining:

a. §5.2 of the Ordinance does not mandate consideration of an employee's prior public service only for those benefits provided for in the ordinance which reference an employee's "actual completed service" to the County; it also mandates such consideration in determining an employee's "initial employment date" for the purposes of the benefits provided for in the ordinance;"

b. Accepting Nassau's construction of the Ordinance would render the provisions concerning an employee's "initial employment date" superfluous and, citing Universal Metal & Ore, Inc. v Westchester County Solid Waste Commission, 145 AD3d 46, said "[C]ourts must give effect to the wording of a statute without rejecting any words as superfluous, and must harmonize related provisions in a way that renders them compatible;"

c. When presented with a question of statutory interpretation, a court's "primary consideration is to ascertain and give effect to the intention of the Legislature" and courts  must first look to a statute's "plain language, as that represents the most compelling evidence of the Legislature's intent;" and

d. In the event the statute is ambiguous, the construction given to it by the administrative agency responsible for its administration should be sustained by the courts unless [i] the agency's interpretation is irrational, unreasonable, or inconsistent with the governing statute" except [ii] when a question is one of pure legal interpretation of statutory terms, deference to the agency is not required  and in such instances, courts should construe clear and unambiguous statutory language [so] as to give effect to the plain meaning of the words used.

In consideration of the Plaintiffs' prior public service, the court found that they all had effective "initial employment date[s]" with the County prior to January 1, 2002. Accordingly, the ordinance entitled them to have the County pay the full cost of their health insurance premiums, and the Supreme Court properly granted their motion for summary judgment on the declaratory judgment and breach of contract causes of action.

The Appellate Division then remitted the matter to the Supreme Court for the entry of a judgment declaring that [1] Nassau was not authorized to require Plaintiffs to pay any portion of the cost of the health insurance coverage provided to them by the County of Nassau and [2] Nassau is to reimburse Plaintiffs for any such payment made by Plaintiffs on or after April 12, 2004.

* Plaintiffs conceded that their damages were those damages incurred on or after April 12, 2004.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:
http://www.nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2017/2017_07110.htm

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