August 7, 2019

A vested right to retirement benefit to be provided by a New York State public retirement system may neither be diminished nor impaired "retroactively"


A 1957 decision of the New York State Comptroller provided for the inclusion of cash payments for accumulated vacation credits* in determining a member's "final average salary" for the purpose of computing the member's retirement benefits. In 1971 the Retirement and Social Security Law [RSSL] was amended** and eliminated the inclusion of cash payments for accumulated vacation credits in determining a member's retirement allowance.

When the Comptroller thereafter applied RSSL §431.1, as amended, to certain retiring members [Plaintiffs] of the retirement system who joined the system prior to the effective of the amendment, they challenged to "retroactive application" of the amendment with respect to the calculation of their retirement allowances, contending that such action constituted a violation of §7(a) of Article V of the New York State Constitution if retroactively applied to the Plaintiffs and others similarly situated.

The Court of Appeals agreed,*** opining that the Comptroller's 1957 decision constituted "a valid contract between the State Employees' Retirement System and its members" and if retroactively applied to the Plaintiffs and others similarly situated would constitute a violation of Article V, §7(a)**** of the State Constitution. In other words, pre-amendment members of the retirement system acquired a vested right to the benefit flowing from the 1957 decision by the Comptroller and "that benefit may not now be constitutionally impaired."

In contrast, insofar as members joining the Retirement System on or after the effective of the 1971 amendment to the RSSL are concerned, the Court of Appeals noted that such new entrants "acquired contractual rights subject to any statutes then outstanding, whether or not by the terms of the statutes they applied to current or future events."

In the words of the court,  "subdivision 1 of section 431 of the Retirement and Social Security Law ... which eliminates inclusion of cash payments for accumulated vacation credits, violates section 7 of article V of our State Constitution if retroactively applied to the plaintiff and others similarly situated." In other words, the change could only be applied to individuals becoming members of the retirement system on or after the effective date of the change.

* Such payments, said the court, represented "compensation for services actually rendered and are, therefore, properly includable in the computation of a member's final average salary."

** Chapter 503 of the Law of 1971 amended §431.1 of the Retirement and Social Security Law.

*** Kranker v Levitt, 30 NY2d 574.

**** Article V §7(a) provides that "After July first, nineteen hundred forty, membership in any pension or retirement system of the state or of a civil division thereof shall be a contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired."

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

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