October 21, 2020

Courts apply longstanding basic rules of statutory interpretation to ascertain and give effect to the intention of the legislature

In July 1976 legislation that fundamentally reformed the state pension systems was enacted and signed into law. Included were changes providing that "any public employee hired on or after July 1, 1976 would be enrolled in the newly-created Tier 3 [a system]  characterized as one 'designed to provid[e] uniform benefits for all public employees and eliminat[e] the costly special treatment of selected groups ... inherent in the previous program.'"

An exception to this pension reform allowed all police officers and firefighters who subsequently entered or reentered a public retirement system to continue as Tier 2 members pursuant to "regular two-year extender bills" until 2009 and, as relevant here, all NYPD officers appointed between July 1, 2009 and March 31, 2012 were placed in Tier 3 of the New York City Police Pension Fund (PPF) while all officers appointed on or after April 1, 2012 were placed in revised but functionally similar Tier 3 plans of the same pension fund.

The focus in this appeal was City of New York's policy to the effect that certain Tier 3 officers were not eligible for certain benefits available to officers in Tier 2 of the PPF retirement plan, including the "credit for service" mechanism* that allows police officers to obtain credit for certain periods of absence without pay for childcare leave, while other PPF retirement plan member absent without pay for childcare leave permitted under NYPD regulations would be eligible for a limited amount of credit for that leave if certain filing and reimbursement requirements were met.

Plaintiffs in this action, among other things, sought a decision declaring that "all police officers hired by the NYPD, including those hired on or after July 1, 2009, are eligible for the benefits afforded by the second subdivision (h) of §13-218," notwithstanding the absence of any extender bill after 2009, and all members of the PPF - regardless of hire date - may purchase pension credit for time spent on unpaid childcare leave."

The City, in contrast, asserted that the relevant provisions of the RSSL "conflict with the Administrative Code and that the pension rights of Tier 3 police officers are exclusively governed by article 14 of the Retirement and Social Security Law [RSSL]." Specifically, the City argued that RSSL §513(h) [1] "addresses the issue of service credit for [childcare] leave," [2] overrides any like provision of Administrative Code §13-218, and [3] "limits the eligibility for such credit to New York City correction officers hired before April 1, 2012."

Supreme Court reasoned that Administrative Code §13-218 (h), on its face, renders any member of the PPF eligible for the childcare leave service credit benefit, and that the RSSL does not conflict with or preempt that part of the Administrative Code**

The Appellate Division reversed the Supreme Court's ruling, denying Plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment and granting the City's cross motion for accelerated relief. The Appellate Division reasoned that "because the RSSL expressly makes the childcare leave service credit benefit in question available to correction officers, but does not expressly confer the same benefit upon police officers, the legislature meant to nullify the part of the Administrative Code allowing the buyback to police members of the retirement system."

Referencing the longstanding, basic rules of statutory interpretation, the Court of Appeals said that in such matters a court's "primary consideration is to ascertain and give effect to the intention of the [l]egislature", citing Samiento v World Yacht Inc., 10 NY3d 70. The rule of statutory interpretation relevant here, said the court, is that the literal language of a statute controls "unless the plain intent and purpose of [the] statute would otherwise be defeated."

Noting that Administrative Code §13-218(h) "Credit for service" provides, in relevant part, that: "any member who is absent without pay for child care le[a]ve of absence pursuant to regulations of the New York city police department shall be eligible for credit for such period of child care leave provided such member files a claim for such service credit with the pension fund by December [31, 2001], or within [90] days following termination of the child care leave, whichever is later, and contributes to the pension fund an amount which such member would have contributed during the period of such child care leave, together with interest thereon", the Court of Appeals opined that "none of the pertinent parts of the statute are ambiguous and 'Any member' can mean only what it says."

In the words of the court, "The reference to 'any member' is unbounded and unfixed to employees of a particular Tier, and the absence of an exception applicable to Tier 3 employees cannot reasonably be attributed to carelessness or mistake."

Rejecting the principal contentions advance by the City in support of its position, the Court of Appeals, Judge Rivera dissenting in an opinion in which Chief Judge DiFiore concurred, held that the Appellate Division order should be reversed and, applying "longstanding, basic rules of statutory interpretation," that the relevant part of "Administrative Code §13-218 renders officers of the New York City Police Department (NYPD) who are members of the Tier 3 retirement system eligible for credit for certain periods of unpaid childcare leave, and that the grant of such benefits for those officers is consistent with the Retirement and Social Security Law."

* See Administrative Code §13-218 [h].

** See 56 Misc 3d at 442-443. 

The decision is posted on the Internet at http://www.nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2020/2020_05841.htm

 

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