February 05, 2020

A retired member is required to repay pension benefits mistakenly paid to him by the New York State Employees Retirement System

The Petitioner in this CPLR Article 78 action began working as an engineer for the New York Power Authority in March 1980. In order increased the pension benefits payable to him by the New York State and Local Retirement System [NYSERS] upon retirement, in January 2001 Petitioner submitted an application to NYSERS in an effort to purchase "military service credit" based on his service as a Naval Reserve Officer from June 1966 until April 1969, during which period he served on merchant ships recommissioned to transport supplies to support the Vietnam war effort pursuant to a Naval Training and Service Agreement. Following such service Petitioner joined a naval reserve unit and was honorably discharged in February 1979.

Although his application was initially denied, NYSERS subsequently advised Petitioner that his application had been approved.Petitioner retired in January 2003 and began receiving NYSERS pension benefits that included the value of the approved military service credit.

In October 2017, however, NYSERS advised Petitioner that it had made an error in granting him military service credit toward his pension benefits. Specifically, he was informed that his service aboard the merchant marine ships did not qualify as military duty within the meaning of the State's Military Law §243 and, consequently, military service credit was not available to him.

In addition, Petitioner was told that [1] his pension benefits would be reduced; [2] his payment of $5,088.10 for the member service credit he purchased would be refunded to him with interest; and [3] he was required to repay NYSERS the amount of the overpayment of benefits that he had already received.

Petitioner sought administrative review and, following a hearing, the Hearing Officer sustained NYSERS' determination. The Comptroller adopted the Hearing Officer's decision and thereupon Petitioner commenced this CPLR article 78 proceeding challenging the Comptroller's decision.

The Appellate Division sustained the Comptroller's decision, explaining:

1. A member of NYSERS, upon application, "may obtain a total not to exceed three years of service credit for up to three years of military duty, as defined in New York State's Military Law §243 if the member was honorably discharged from the military; and

2. §243(1)(b) of the Military Law provides, in relevant part, that military duty includes "service in the merchant marine which shall consist of service as an officer or member of the crew on or in connection with a vessel . . . owned by, chartered to, or operated by or for the account or use of the government of the United States . . . and who served satisfactorily as a crew member during the period of armed conflict [December 17, 1941]to August 15, 1945] aboard merchant vessels."**

Clearly, said the court, "Petitioner's service in the merchant marine from 1966 to 1969 did not fall within the time parameters set forth in the statute." Further, the court opined that Petitioner failed to establish that his service aboard merchant vessels constituted active military duty as a Naval Reserve officer. Citing Matter of McMorrow v Hevesi, 6 AD3d 925, the Appellate Division said that it has only recognized "active duty, which excludes temporary and intermittent . . . service in any reserve . . . force,"  for purposes of claiming member service credit pursuant to Retirement and Social Security Law §1000 and Military Law §243(1)(b).***

Noting that there was evidence in the record that could lead to a different result, the Appellate Division opined that "because substantial evidence supports the Comptroller's determination that [Petitioner] was not entitled to military credit under the governing statutes, [it would] not disturb it."

Addressing Petitioner argument that he was erroneously directed to repay the pension benefits mistakenly paid to him, the court said that the Comptroller "had no choice but to seek recoupment of such benefits, as the Comptroller has a duty to correct errors in order to ensure the integrity of the public retirement system", citing Matter of Mowry v DiNapoli, 111 AD3d 1117. Further, said the Appellate Division, the Comptroller "is not estopped from doing so because of errors committed by [NYSERS] officials."

* In exchange for a nonrefundable payment of $5,088.10, Petitioner was awarded 1.53 years of additional member service credit toward his pension benefits.

** §85 of the Civil Service Law defines "qualifying" military service" for the purposes of eligibility for additional credit allowed veterans in competitive examinations and preference in retention upon the abolition of positions in the public service. [See, also, §85.7(5).]

*** Petitioner conceded that he did not qualify for veteran's benefits as a result of his service on merchant ships during the period June 1966 through April 1969.

The decision is posted on the Internet at: