January 08, 2021

When the statutory language is clear and unambiguous, it should be construed so as to give effect to the plain meaning of the words used

This CPLR Article 78 was filed by an individual [Plaintiff] who was initially employed by New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation and subsequently was appointed as a correction officer by the New York City Department of Correction [DOC].

At the time of his appointment by DOC Plaintiff was a "Tier 4 member" of  the New York City Employees' Retirement System [NYCERS]and DOC requested that the NYCERS to place the Plaintiff in the City's CF-20 plan in Tier 3. DOC's request was approved,

Subsequently Plaintiff asked NYCERS about his member status in the System. NYCERS advised him that it had conducted a review of his membership status and had determined that his current retirement plan, CF-20, was incorrect. NYCERS told Plaintiff that it was mandated by law to place him in the Uniformed Correction Force 22 year plan [CF-22]. 

Contending that NYCERS's determination changing Plaintiff's pension benefit plan from CF-20 to CF-22 was arbitrary and capricious, Plaintiff asked Supreme Court to compel NYCERS to reinstate him as a CF-20 Plan member. Supreme Court denied Plaintiff's petition and he appealed the court's ruling.

The Appellate Division sustained Supreme Court's decision, explaining:

1. "NYCERS is the public employee retirement system responsible for administering the retirement programs for employees of the City [of New York] and various [New York] City-related participating employers."

2. Before the effective date of the 2012 amendment to the Retirement and Social Security Law [RSSL], any person who became employed as a uniformed correction officer was eligible to join the CF-20 plan in Tier 3 pursuant to RSSL §504-d as then in effect.

3. In March 2012, the Legislature amended certain provisions of the RSSL, the result of which Plaintiff would be ineligible for CF-20 benefits.

It is undisputed that, when the Plaintiff joined NYCERS in 2004, he joined as a Tier 4 member and was subject to RSSL Article 15 rather than the provisions of RSSL Article 14 until he was appointed as a correction officer.

Although the Appellate Division conceded the Plaintiff was correct that certain portions of the legislative history of the amendment indicate that the 2012 amendment would impact members who first become members of NYCERS on or after April 1, 2012, NYCERS successfully argued that the legislative history of the amendment stated that the relevant amendments would apply to new New York City uniformed correction members.

Citing People v Brown, 115 AD3d 155, affirmed 25 NY3d 247, the Appellate Division opined that the plain language of the RSSL §501(25) is clear and unambiguous. The court then indicated that "when the statutory language is clear and unambiguous, it should be construed so as to give effect to the plain meaning of the words used." 

Thus, the court concluded that Plaintiff did not become subject to Article 14 of the RSSL until after April 1, 2012, and NYCERS properly reclassified his retirement system member status from CF-20 to CF-22.

The court rejected Plaintiff's arguments that [1] Article V, §7 of the New York Constitution* and [2] the doctrine of equitable estoppel** barred NYCERS from changing his retirement system member status as NYCERS, itself, initially placed him in the CF-20 plan.

In the words of the Appellate Division, "[i]n securing a public employee's retirement rights, '[t]he Constitution does not, in terms or otherwise, preserve naked pension rights quarights but, rather, the benefits of the contractual relationship ... Thus, we must look to the contract for both the source and the definition of the plaintiff's benefits'".

Noting that Plaintiff became a member of NYCERS as a Tier 4 member subject to RSSL Article 15, the court concluded that "the 2012 amendments at issue in no way diminished or impaired [Plaintiff's]  pension benefits," and agreed with NYCERS that the 2012 amendments, as applied to Plaintiff, did not violate his rights under the Constitution's pension impairment clause.

* Article V, §7 of the New York Constitution, which states that "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". 

** See, however, https://publicpersonnellaw.blogspot.com/2020/12/a-governmental-entity-may-be-subject-to.html, a decision by the Appellate Division that addressed an exception to this general rule.

Click here to access the text of the decision.

Click here to access another Appellate Division ruling involving similar issues as presented in this action handed down on the same day. 


 

 

CAUTION

Subsequent court and administrative rulings, or changes to laws, rules and regulations may have modified or clarified or vacated or reversed the decisions summarized here. Accordingly, these summaries should be Shepardized® or otherwise checked to make certain that the most recent information is being considered by the reader.
THE MATERIAL ON THIS WEBSITE IS FOR INFORMATION ONLY. AGAIN, CHANGES IN LAWS, RULES, REGULATIONS AND NEW COURT AND ADMINISTRATIVE DECISIONS MAY AFFECT THE ACCURACY OF THE INFORMATION PROVIDED IN THIS LAWBLOG. THE MATERIAL PRESENTED IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE AND THE USE OF ANY MATERIAL POSTED ON THIS WEBSITE DOES NOT CREATE AN ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP.
Consistent with the Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations, the material in this blog is presented with the understanding that neither the publisher nor members of the staff are providing legal advice to the reader and in the event legal or other expert assistance is needed, the reader is advised to seek such advice from a competent professional.