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Zimmelman v. Teachers' Retirement System of the City of New York

March 26, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: The Honorable Deborah A. Batts, U.S.D.J.


Pro se plaintiff Joan Zimmelman ("Plaintiff"), a former teacher in the New York City public schools, brings this action against the Teachers' Retirement System of the City of New York (the "TRS"), the Department of Education of the City of New York (the "DOE") (collectively, the "City Defendants"), and the Insurance Department of the State of New York (the "NYSID") (all, collectively, "Defendants"), claiming that the failure of these entities to correct alleged errors in the calculation of her retirement benefits violates several federal and state statutes.*fn1 Currently before the Court are Defendants' motions to dismiss the Amended Complaint pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

For the reasons discussed herein, I recommend that the dismissal motions filed by both the City Defendants (Dkt. 9) and the NYSID (Dkt. 10) be granted in their entirety.


A. Factual Background

1. Plaintiff's Employment with the DOE and Its Predecessor, the Board of Education of the City of New York (the "BOE")

Plaintiff is a retired New York City schoolteacher and "Tier I" member of the TRS. (See Amended Complaint, dated Nov. 26, 2008 ("Am. Compl.") (Dkt. 3).) In September 1969, Plaintiff began her employment with the BOE,*fn3 as a teacher of Early Childhood Education. (Id. at ¶ 26.) Plaintiff taught kindergarten classes for approximately eight years and worked as a special cluster teacher for two years. (Id. at ¶ 28.) She also worked in the BOE's summer school and after-school programs. (Id. at ¶ 29.)

In 1979, Plaintiff learned that she was pregnant. (Id. at ¶ 31.) She applied for and was granted a maternity leave of absence, in accordance with then-existing BOE regulations. (See id. at ¶ 45.) While on maternity leave, Plaintiff became pregnant with her second child and applied for a second consecutive maternity leave. (Id. at ¶¶ 43-44.) While on her second maternity leave, Plaintiff became pregnant a third time and again applied for additional maternity/child care leave. (Id. at ¶¶ 50-51.) Plaintiff also applied for two separate leaves of absence for child care, from September 6, 1988 to August 31, 1990. (Id. at ¶ 83.)

At some point during her maternity and/or child care leaves, Plaintiff's mother's health declined, and Plaintiff became her sole caregiver. (Id. at ¶ 62.) In light of her mother's condition, Plaintiff applied for subsequent leaves of absence to care for her mother; these requested leaves of absence were granted for the period from September 1990 to September 1998. (Id. at ¶¶ 65, 83.)

In the spring of 1998, before the expiration of her last leave of absence to care for a sick family member, Plaintiff was herself diagnosed with breast cancer. (Id. at ¶ 71.) In connection with her own treatments, Plaintiff, applied for and was granted a leave of absence from September 1998 to September 1999, for the restoration of her health. (See id. at ¶¶ 76-77.) In August 1999, at approximately the close of that leave of absence, and due to her medical condition, Plaintiff was granted an ordinary disability retirement. (Id. at ¶¶ 79-80, 85.)*fn4

In sum, Plaintiff's approved leaves of absence were as follows: Date Reason October 12, 1979-September 1, 1984 Maternity September 2, 1984-September 5, 1988 Maternity September 6, 1988 - September 5, 1989 Child Care September 6, 1989 - August 31, 1990 Child Care September 1, 1990 - August 31, 1991 Sick Family Member September 1, 1991 - September 7, 1994 Sick Family Member September 8, 1994 - September 4, 1995 Sick Family Member September 9, 1995 - September 2, 1996 Sick Family Member September 3, 1996 - September 1, 1997 Sick Family Member September 2, 1997 - September 7, 1998 Sick Family Member September 8, 1998 - September 6, 1999 Restoration of Health (Id. at ¶ 83.) According to Plaintiff, her leaves of absence for maternity, child care and other types of family care were unpaid. (See id., at ¶¶ 65, 209.)

2. Plaintiff's Complaints to the TRS

Upon her retirement, Plaintiff began to receive retirement benefits. (Id. at ¶ 252.) Several months later, Plaintiff received a letter from the TRS, dated May 11, 2000, explaining how her retirement benefits were being calculated. (See id. at ¶ 251; see Plaintiff's Memorandum of Law in Opposition to Defendants TRS and DOE's Motion to Dismiss the Complaint, dated Mar. 30, 2009 ("Pl. Opp. Mem. 1") (Dkt. 14), Ex. 4 (letter to Plaintiff from Donald Miller, Executive Director of the TRS, dated May 11, 2000).)*fn5 A few months after receiving this letter, Plaintiff "noted some discrepancies" (Am. Compl.,at ¶ 252), and she then contacted the TRS on multiple occasions, challenging its calculation of her benefits.

Among other things, Plaintiff asserted that the TRS (1) had failed to award her service credit for her maternity and "sick family member" leaves, and (2) had incorrectly calculated her benefits by basing them on the teacher's salary that was in effect seven years from the last date that she had actually worked (i.e., in 1986), as opposed to the salary in effect one year prior to her retirement (i.e., in 1998), as she claimed was required by the applicable regulations.*fn6 (See id. at ¶¶ 97-100; 106-07; 109; 118-19; see Pl. Opp. Mem. 1, Ex. 1 (letter to Plaintiff from Tom Gunn dated Dec. 11, 2006); Ex. 10 (attaching letters to Plaintiff from the TRS dated Mar. 16, 2004 and Dec. 13, 2005).)

Plaintiff states that, after she initially raised her concerns, the TRS sent her several revised benefits letters (id. at ¶ 230; see Seeman Decl., Ex C (letter to Plaintiff from Cynthia McDermott dated Dec. 20, 2000, enclosing Oct. 20, 2000 benefits letter)), which made minor adjustments to her benefits calculations -- including changing the salary used to calculate her benefits to the one in effect seven years (i.e., in 1986), as opposed to five years (i.e., in 1984), from her last actual work date. (See Seeman Decl., Ex. D (letter to Plaintiff from JoAnne Lennon dated Aug. 29, 2001).)*fn7 In its correspondence to Plaintiff, the TRS apologized for what it conceded were prior incorrect benefits payments (see id. at ¶¶ 231-35), but stated several times that Plaintiff's final average salary calculation was "fair and consistent with TRS procedures for those similarly situated" (see Pl. Opp. Mem. 1, Ex 10 (letter to Plaintiff from Tom Gunn, dated Mar. 16, 2004)). Plaintiff claims, however, that the TRS failed to rectify fully the two fundamental problems that she perceived with respect to its computation of her benefits. (See Am. Compl., at ¶¶ 9-11.)

3. Plaintiff's Complaint to the NYSID

On or about October 2004, Plaintiff wrote to the NYSID, requesting a review of the TRS's calculation of her retirement benefits. (Id. at ¶ 281.) By letter dated December 4, 2006, Michael J. Lambert ("Lambert"), Supervising Actuary, informed Plaintiff that the NYSID had completed its review of her complaints and concluded that the benefits she was receiving from TRS were correct, and that, "while mistakes had been made earlier, appropriate adjustments had been made." (See id. at ¶ 19; Pl. Opp. Mem. 1, Ex. 8 (letter from Michael J. Lambert to Plaintiff, dated Dec. 4, 2006).) Lambert further stated, "I can assure you that the [NYSID] and [TRS] have investigated all relevant issues thoroughly, and we are confident that this resolution is correct." (Pl. Opp. Mem. 1, Ex. 8.)

Believing Lambert's conclusions were flawed, Plaintiff wrote several additional letters to the NYSID in 2007, requesting an explanation of his determinations, but she received no responses. (Am. Compl.,at ¶¶ 21-22; 283.) Plaintiff also made a demand to the NYSID under the New York State Freedom of Information Law ("FOIL") for production of "all records" used in reviewing her retirement benefits. (Id. at ¶ 289.) According to Plaintiff, the NYSID's response to her FOIL request did not include certain documents pertinent to the calculation of her benefits. (Id., at ¶¶ 294-97, 316.)

B. Procedural History

1. Plaintiff's Administrative Filings

On June 5, 2007, Plaintiff filed a complaint against the TRS with the New York State Division of Human Rights ("NYSDHR"),*fn8 alleging employment discrimination on the basis of disability, sex, marital status and pregnancy, in violation of Article 15 of the NYSHRL, the ADA, and Title VII. (See Seeman Decl., Ex. E (Verified Complaint, in Zimmelman v. Teachers Retirement System of the City of New York, Case No. 10118542, Federal Charge No. 16GA703658, dated June 5, 2007 ("NYSDHR Compl.")).) Specifically, Plaintiff claimed that the TRS did not properly calculate her retirement benefits, in that it failed to base her final average salary on the salary earnable during the 12 months preceding her retirement, and it failed to grant her service credit for her medical, maternity and family leaves. (Id. at 3-6.)

The TRS filed a response denying the charges and contending that the NYSDHR lacked jurisdiction and that the charges were untimely and without merit. (See Pl. Opp. Mem. 1, Ex. 2 (TRS Response to Complaint, Zimmelman v. Teachers Retirement System of the City of New York, Case No. 10118542).) With respect to its alleged failure to grant service credit for Plaintiff's leaves, the TRS stated that it "cannot award service credit unilaterally but can only do so on the recommendation of [Plaintiff's] employer." (Id.)

Upon completion of its investigation, the NYSDHR dismissed Plaintiff's complaint, finding that the agency lacked jurisdiction because "the parties were not engaged in an employment relationship pursuant to the Human Rights Law." (See Seeman Decl., Ex. G (NYSDHR Determination and Order After Investigation, Case No. 101158542, dated Mar. 11, 2008), at 1.) The EEOC similarly dismissed Plaintiff's charges, stating that there was no employer/employee relationship between the TRS and Plaintiff, and also finding that Plaintiff had not timely filed her EEOC charge. (See Dismissal and Notice of Rights, dated May 8, 2008, attached to Am. Compl.) On May 8, 2008, the EEOC issued Plaintiff a "right to sue" letter. (See id.)

2. Plaintiff's Federal Lawsuit

Plaintiff commenced this action against the DOE, the TRS, and the NYSID on August 5, 2008 (Dkt. 1) and filed an Amended Complaint on November 26, 2008 (Dkt. 3). She alleges that the TRS discriminated against her on the basis of sex, marital status, maternity status and disability, in violation of Title VII, the ADA, the Equal Pay Act, and the 14th Amendment, by using an incorrect salary figure to calculate her retirement benefits and by refusing to grant her service credit for her maternity and child care leaves of absence. (See generally, Am. Compl.) Plaintiff further claims that TRS retaliated against her for exercising her rights in violation of the NYCHRL. ( Id.) In addition, Plaintiff alleges that the DOE discriminated against her by forcing her to take maternity leave, in violation of Article 15 of the NYSHRL, and that it violated Section 195.5 of the New York State Labor Law, by failing to provide written notice of its leave policies. (See id.) As against the NYSID, Plaintiff claims that the department failed to conduct an adequate investigation of her claims regarding her retirement benefits and also that it provided her with an incomplete FOIL response. (See Am. Compl, at ¶¶ 294-97; 316). Lastly, Plaintiff makes a general claim that all of the Defendants somehow colluded to deny her appopriate retirement benefits. (Id. at ¶¶ 137, 188, 194, 321.)

Plaintiff requests the following relief: (1) that her retirement benefits, going forward, be calculated based on (a) the teaching salary earnable in 1998, the year immediately preceding her retirement, and (b) full service credit for her maternity leavesof absence; (2) that her benefits also be recalculated retroactively, and that she receive an award of past-due benefits at the standard TRS interest rate of eight percent; (3) that she be awarded $500,000 in punitive damages, together with an additional sum of money to cover "tax burdens" purportedly imposed by the TRS for failure to issue payments during the ...

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