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May 14, 2021

Giving effect to the plain meaning of the relevant statutory language is the clearest indicator of legislative intent

A County correction officer [Petitioner] assigned to the core central desk at the county jail, applied for performance of duty disability retirement benefits pursuant to Retirement and Social Security Law §607-c. Petitioner claimed that he was permanently disabled as a result of work-related injuries, which he asserted he had sustained when called to assist another correction officer who had arrested and handcuffed a suspect for trespassing on county property adjacent to the jail.

The New York State and Local Employees' Retirement System [NYSERS] denied Petitioner's application on the ground that, among other things, Petitioner's injuries did not result from the acts of an inmate or person confined in an institution under county jurisdiction within the meaning of §607-c(a) of the Retirement and Social Security Law [RSSL]. 

Petitioner challenged NYSERS' determination. The Hearing Officer, however, found that Petitioner had not established that his injuries were the result of "an act of an inmate or person confined in a county facility," recommended that NYSERS' determination be sustained. The State Comptroller accepted the findings of fact and conclusions of law of the Hearing Officer and denied the Petitioner's application for performance of duty disability retirement. Petitioner subsequently initiated a CPLR Article 78 proceeding challenging the Comptroller's decision.

Citing a number of earlier court rulings including Matter of Martin v New York State Comptroller, 161 AD3d 1418, the Appellate Division affirmed the Comptroller's decision, explaining that to qualify for a RSSL §607-c performance of duty disability retirement the applicant bears the burden of establishing that his alleged incapacity was "the natural and proximate result of any act of any inmate or any person confined in an institution under [county] jurisdiction" [emphases in the court's decision].

Noting that a review of an administrative determination denying performance of duty disability retirement benefits typically is limited to whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support such determination, the Appellate Division said that where, as here, the dispositive issue is one of statutory interpretation, courts will "engage in de novo review of the statutory interpretation" and "need not accord any deference to the agency's determination." Further, said the Appellate Division, "... the clearest indicator of legislative intent is the statutory text must always be the [statutory] language itself, giving effect to the plain meaning thereof", citing Majewski v Broadalbin-Perth Cent. School Dist., 91 NY2d 577.

Finding that neither the term "inmate" nor the phrase "person confined in an institution" are defined for the purposes of RSSL §607-c, the Appellate Division opined that considering the plain meaning of the statutory language and its commonly understood usage, as well as a review of the definitions given to the term "inmate" in relevant Correction Law and Penal Law provisions, in this instance the individual alleged to have caused Petitioner's injuries here does not qualify as an "inmate" or a "person confined in an institution" within the meaning of RSSL §607-c.

The Appellate Division, conceding that under the circumstances granting Petitioner §607-c "would further the legislative purpose of awarding benefits to correction officers injured in the discharge of their duties ... the restrictive language of Retirement and Social Security Law §607-c precludes such award here, as [Petitioner's] injuries were not caused by the acts of an inmate or person confined in an institution" and confirmed the Comptroller's denial of Petitioner's application for performance of duty disability retirement benefits.

Click HERE to access the Appellate Division's decision.

 

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