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August 16, 2018

Evaluating the inclusion of "longevity allowance payments" in computing an employee's final average salary for retirement benefit purposes


Evaluating the inclusion of "longevity allowance payments" in computing an employee's final average salary for retirement benefit purposes
Bohlen v DiNapoli,2018 NY Slip Op 05720, Appellate Division, Third Department

In this action Petitioners ask the court to review the Comptroller determination excluding certain compensation from the final average salary in calculating the retirement benefits of 11 long-term, executive level key employees [Petitioners] of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey [Authority], all members of New York State and Local Employees' Retirement System [System].

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center that resulted in the destruction of its headquarters, the loss of virtually all of its records and the death of over 70 of its employees, the Authority elected to participate in a temporary retirement incentive program that was passed by the Legislature for employees who were members of the System but advised Petitioners, who were all eligible to retire at that time without penalty, that they would be exempted from the program. Instead, the Authority offered each of them, in addition to their regular salary, a "parity" benefit described as a longevity allowance payment that was based on a percentage of their salary to be paid biweekly, provided that they continued their employment beyond December 31, 2002.

Petitioners each signed memorandum agreements accepting the offer and the Port Authority began making longevity allowance payments to them under what it called an "Employee Retention Program."

In 2012 the System concluded that the longevity allowance payments were not includable  in determining the final average salaries of certain then retiring Petitioners because they were paid "in anticipation of eventual retirement." The System also reevaluated the retirement benefits that were being paid to other of these Petitioners who had earlier retired and came to the same conclusion.

Petitioners challenged the determinations of the Retirement System and requested a hearing. The Hearing Officer found that the System acted reasonably in excluding the longevity allowance payments in computing Petitioners' final average salaries, consistent with the provisions of Retirement and Social Security Law §431. The Comptroller accepted the Hearing Officer's findings and Petitioners initiated a CPLR Article 78 proceeding challenging the Comptroller's decision contending that the longevity allowance payments should have been included in the calculation of their final average salaries.

The Appellate Division agreed with the Petitioners, indicating that:

1. There is no dispute that the 2002 enabling legislation establishing the retirement incentive authorized participating employers to determine which titles would be eligible;

2. The Authority was authorized to determine that Petitioners — all recognized as key employees eligible to retire — would be ineligible for the program;

3. The Authority entered into a memorandum agreement with each Petitioner that provided for a "longevity allowance in consideration of [petitioners] not retiring" (emphasis by the court); and 

4. The "consideration" factor is significant for the Authority was entitled to exclude Petitioners from the retirement incentive without providing any consideration, regardless of whether Petitioners intended to retire at that time.

The memorandum agreement, noted the Appellate Division, indicated that the longevity allowance would make Petitioners' pension calculation "roughly equivalent" to what it would have been under the retirement incentive, provided that they remained employed for three years beyond December 31, 2002. Significantly, said the court, "the additional payments were made on a biweekly basis in the same way as regular salary for services as they were performed."

These payments, in the view of the Appellate Division, "are more appropriately characterized as payments genuinely made to delay [P]etitioners' retirements, not to artificially inflate their final average salary in anticipation of retirement" as they were provided for the primary purposes of [a] retaining key employees following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack and [b] to adequately compensate Petitioners for their dedication and commitment to remain in their vital positions.

Further, observed the court, there was "neither a lump-sum payment on the eve of retirement nor a disproportionate salary increase designed to artificially inflate a pension benefit that would be properly excluded from the computation of the final average salary."

Although both the System and the Hearing Officer, whose recommendation the Comptroller adopted, characterized the payments as having been made "in anticipation of eventual retirement" (emphasis provided in the decision) the Appellate Division noted that the term "eventual" is not part of the statutory standard and use of the term eventual actually reflects the Comptroller's own recognition that there was no actual retirement date anticipated in the memorandum agreement.

Justice Lynch, in an opinion in which Justices Devine and Pritzker concurred, held that the Comptroller's determination to uphold the System's exclusion of these payments from the computation of Petitioners' pension benefits was not supported by substantial evidence and that the final average salaries of the Petitioners for the purpose of determining their retirement benefits should be recalculated.  Justice Clark wrote a dissenting opinion in which Presiding Justice McCarthy concurred.

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