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SHELFORD v. NEW YORK STATE TEACHERS RETIREMENT SYS

September 28, 1993

CONSTANCE SHELFORD; and REISHA BERKOWSKY on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs, against NEW YORK STATE TEACHERS RETIREMENT SYSTEM, Defendant.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: THOMAS C. PLATT

 PLATT, Chief Judge.

 BACKGROUND

 Plaintiffs bring this action pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1991, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000(e) et seq., alleging that NYSTRS discriminates against women who wish to bear and raise children by reducing their retirement benefits after a break in service. Plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment as to plaintiffs' rights and a permanent injunction, restraining NYSTRS from maintaining a policy and practice of discriminating against plaintiffs and other women in this class because of sex with respect to their status as pension beneficiaries. Plaintiffs also seek restitution as to plaintiffs and their class of all the rights, privileges, benefits, and incomes that would have been received by them but for defendant's allegedly discriminatory practices.

 NYSTRS is presently comprised of four tiers, divided according to the date of the individual teacher's entry into the retirement system. Teachers employed before July 1, 1973 belong to Tier I; those entering the system between July 1, 1973 and July 27, 1976 are in Tier II; those entering between July 27, 1976 and September 1, 1983 are in Tier III; and those entering after September 1, 1983 belong to Tier IV.

 Prior to 1973, the system was not divided into tiers. At that time, funds held by NYSTRS were comprised entirely of contributions from plaintiffs' employers, raised by withholding state and local tax funds appropriated to the support of the schools. As budgetary restrictions reduced the amount of tax dollars available to fund education, NYSTRS was forced to create a tier-based system, reducing the level of the pension benefits afforded to newly hired teachers.

 The pension plan with the most advantageous retirement benefits is the Tier I pension plan. The annual retirement allowances of Tier I members are substantially higher than the allowances meted out to those belonging to Tiers II, III, and IV. Moreover, the Tier I members are not required to make any contributions, whereas members of the three remaining tiers are required to contribute as much as three percent of their annual salary. Finally, Tiers III and IV defer full compensation until age sixty-two, whereas Tier I members may retire at age fifty-five and receive unreduced benefits.

 NYSTRS provides that a non-vested teacher's membership in the system ceases if the member withdraws his or her accumulated deductions or if the member renders no service as a teacher for a specified period of years. If membership ceases because of a break in service and is later resumed, the teacher enters the system as a new entrant. The break-in-service rule has existed since 1920, but has been amended several times to make it easier for teachers to retain membership in the system despite lengthy absences. In its present form, the rule provides that membership ceases after a five year absence from teaching, but such membership can be preserved by rendering twenty days of service in one out of every seven years. See 1986 N.Y. Laws ch. 788 (amending Section 503(3) to provide for cessation of membership when seven years have elapsed since the member has performed service as a teacher); 21 N.Y.C.R.R. § 5001.4(a) ("Twenty days of service rendered in any school year on and after July 1, 1968 shall entitle the member to one year of service credit . . . in satisfaction of the service requirement for retention of membership under subdivision 3 of section 503 of the Education Law."). The break-in-service rules apply to men and women equally, without regard for the activities undertaken during the teacher's absence.

 Based upon a pyramid principle, NYSTRS, like most other pension systems, relies on paying pension benefits at retirement to fewer than the number of employees who have paid into the system. To give this pyramid its necessarily broad base of "pay-ins" and narrow top of "pay-outs", NYSTRS is structured to reward the long-term employee with little or no job mobility. According to plaintiffs, this type of pension plan conforms best to the typical "male work pattern" and weighs heavily against the "female work pattern", which is typified by one or more interruptions in work service to bear and raise children, to care for sick and elderly family members, and to follow husbands entering the military or undergoing job transfers. Plaintiffs charge that a pension plan such as NYSTRS that rewards the interruption-free male work pattern while penalizing the discontinuity of the female work pattern is inherently and intentionally discriminatory in violation of Title VII.

 All of the plaintiff class members identified in the complaint were classified as Tier I employees before taking a leave of absence to raise their children. Each of the women left teaching having less than the ten years of credited teaching service required to be vested in Tier I. Each of the women was absent from teaching for more than the five years allowed under the break-in-service rule in effect at the time. Upon returning to work in mid-1970s, they were reclassified as Tier III employees, obligated to pay into the system via regular paycheck deductions and eligible to receive fewer benefits than their counterparts in Tier I.

 Ellen Meiselman taught school until the 1963-64 school year, when she took a leave of absence to have children. Meiselman returned to teaching in 1976 and was placed in Tier III of the plan. Mary Jean Delfoe taught continuously until the 1970-71 school year when she took maternity leave. She returned to teaching in 1977-78 and, like Meiselman, was placed in Tier III. Jerene Weitman resigned from her post as teacher in the Cold Spring Harbor School District in June 1969 when she was three months pregnant. She performed some substitute teaching work that same year but did not return to teaching until the 1977-78 school year, when she was classified as a Tier III employee. Patricia Moore taught school in West Islip from 1961 to 1964. She performed some substitute teaching in 1968 through 1970, but did not return to teaching on a full-time basis until 1978, when she was placed in Tier III. Judith Sause left teaching in 1969, after two years' service, to give birth to her first child. She returned to work in 1977 and was placed in Tier III of the pension plan. *fn1"

 In August 1992, three of the women--Mary Jean Delfore, Patricia Moore, and Judith Sause--filed gender discrimination charges against NYSTRS with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). The EEOC dismissed these charges on December 7, 1992 on the ground that they were ...


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