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De La Cruz v. Caddell Dry Dock & Repair Co., Inc.

Court of Appeals of New York

June 27, 2013

Manuel DE LA CRUZ et al., Appellants,
v.
CADDELL DRY DOCK & REPAIR CO., INC., et al., Respondents.

Page 531

[975 N.Y.S.2d 372] Virginia & Ambinder, LLP, New York City (James Emmet Murphy and Lloyd R. Ambinder of counsel), for appellants.

Blank Rome LLP, New York City (Richard V. Singleton II and Anthony A. Mingione of counsel), and Frank & Associates, PC, Farmingdale (Peter A. Romero of counsel), for respondents.

Page 532

OPINION

PIGOTT, J.

[997 N.E.2d 1224] We hold that a municipal vessel is a public work within the meaning of Labor Law § 220 and article I, § 17 of the State Constitution— so that workers involved in its construction, maintenance or repair must be paid prevailing wages— if the vessel's primary objective is to benefit the general public.

I

Plaintiffs were employed by defendant Caddell Dry Dock & Repair Co., Inc. (Caddell), which operates six floating dry docks on Staten Island, where workers repair, refurbish and maintain vessels for various tug and barge companies, and for the City of New York. The vessels serviced there have included the Staten Island Ferry vessels, New York City fireboats, and New York City Department of Sanitation garbage barges. In September 2002, plaintiffs, as third-party beneficiaries of contracts between Caddell and New York City agencies, began this action against Caddell and its sureties, seeking enforcement of contractual provisions requiring the payment of the prevailing

Page 533

rate of wages and supplemental benefits. Plaintiffs, relying on Labor Law § 220 and article I, § 17 of the New York State Constitution, contend that the vessels they labored on were " public works" within the meaning of those laws. They sued individually and on behalf of a putative class of approximately 750 Cad-dell employees who repaired and maintained New York City vessels under contracts between Caddell and city agencies.[1]

[975 N.Y.S.2d 373] [997 N.E.2d 1225] Following discovery, defendants moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint on the ground that no " public work" was involved. Plaintiffs cross-moved for partial summary judgment as to liability. Supreme Court denied plaintiffs' cross motion and granted defendants' motion, dismissing the complaint. The Appellate Division affirmed, holding that it was " constrained" by our decision in Brukhman v. Giuliani, 94 N.Y.2d 387, 705 N.Y.S.2d 558, 727 N.E.2d 116 (2000) to find that the city vessels in question were not " public works" within the meaning of Labor Law § 220 ( 95 A.D.3D 297, 298, 942 N.Y.S.2D 61 [1ST DEPT.2012] ). we granted plaintiffs leave to appeal, and now reverse.

II

Pursuant to Labor Law § 220, contractors engaged in public projects must pay their workers wages and supplemental benefits that " shall be not less than the prevailing rate for a day's work in the same trade or occupation in the locality within the state where such public work ... is to be situated, erected or used" (Labor Law § 220[3][a] ). The substance of the statutory requirement dates to the 1890s.[2] The State Constitution was amended in 1905 to authorize such prevailing wage legislation, and the law was preserved as a constitutional requirement in its present form in the 1938 State Constitution ( see 3 Rev.

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Rec., 1938 N.Y. Constitutional Convention at 2201; see generally Matter of Cayuga-Onondaga Counties Bd. of Coop. Educ. Servs. v. Sweeney, 89 N.Y.2d 395, 401, 654 N.Y.S.2d 92, 676 N.E.2d 854 [1996] ). Under article I, § 17 of the State Constitution,

" [n]o laborer, worker or mechanic, in the employ of a contractor or sub-contractor engaged in the performance of any public work, ... shall ... be paid less than the rate of wages prevailing in the same trade or occupation in the locality within the state where such public work is to be situated, erected or used."

In the past, we adopted a two-prong test to determine whether a particular project is bound by the constitutional prevailing wage rate requirement, namely the standard set out in Matter of Erie County Indus. Dev. Agency v. Roberts, 94 A.D.2d 532, 465 N.Y.S.2d 301 (4th Dept.1983), aff'd for reasons stated below 63 N.Y.2d 810, 482 N.Y.S.2d 267, 472 N.E.2d 43 [1984]. " (1) [T]he public agency must be a party to a contract involving the employment of laborers, workmen, or mechanics, and (2) the contract must concern a public works project" ( Matter of New York Charter School Assn. v. Smith, 15 N.Y.3d 403, 413, 914 N.Y.S.2d 696, 940 N.E.2d 522 [2010], quoting Erie County Indus. Dev. Agency, 94 A.D.2d at 537, 465 N.Y.S.2d 301). In the present case, the second prong of the Erie County test is at issue; the question is whether a " public work" must be a structure attached to land. In the absence of direct and specific evidence of the legislative intent regarding [975 N.Y.S.2d 374] the term, a proper analysis may be informed by three sources: first and most importantly, the language of the statute and constitutional provision itself; second, precedent; and third, dictionary definition.

III

The term " public work" is used in two, distinct ways: first, to denote a public [997 N.E.2d 1226] undertaking or endeavor performed by workers, and second, to refer to the physical product of such work.[3] It is the second meaning of the term that is relevant here.

Labor Law § 220 and the constitutional provision have some common language: a laborer, worker, or mechanic, employed by a contractor or subcontractor upon a public work, shall not be paid less than the rate of wages prevailing " in the same trade

Page 535

or occupation in the locality within the state where such public work is to be situated, erected or used " (N.Y. Const., art. I, § 17 [emphasis added]; see also Labor Law § 220[3][a]; L. 1899, ch. 567, § 1). It is clear from the words " situated, erected or used" that the term " public works" was intended to extend beyond structures that are erected, and also include at least some things for which the participles " situated" or " used" are more fitting. While a vessel would not be described as being " erected," it would be appropriate to describe it as being " situated" or " used." The language of the statute and constitutional provision, therefore, supports the interpretation advanced by the plaintiffs in this case, as has the practical view taken by federal authorities that have considered the term, in the corresponding federal wage law (see 40 USC § 3142 [Davis-Bacon Act]; 38 U.S. Atty. Gen. 418 [1936] [interpreting Davis-Bacon Act (former 40 USC § 276a) ] ) and in other similar contexts ( see Title Guaranty & Trust Co. of Scranton v. Crane Co., 219 U.S. 24, 33, 31 S.Ct. 140, 55 L.Ed. 72 [1910]; see also e.g. United States for Use & Benefit of Owens v. Olympic Mar. Servs., Inc., 827 F.Supp. 1232, 1233-1234 [E.D.Va.1993] ). In the words of Justice Holmes, " [w]hether a work is public or not does not depend upon its being attached to the soil" ( Title Guaranty & Trust Co., 219 U.S. at 33, 31 S.Ct. 140).

IV

Our case law makes clear that Labor Law § 220 " is an attempt by the State to hold its territorial subdivisions to a standard of social justice in their dealings with laborers, workmen and mechanics. It is to be interpreted with the degree of liberality essential to the attainment of the end in view" ( Austin v. City of New York, 258 N.Y. 113, 117, 179 N.E. 313 [1932] ). In Matter of Gaston v. Taylor, 274 N.Y. 359, 9 N.E.2d 9 (1937), we held that workers may be " employed upon ‘ public works' within the meaning of the statute" even when " their work relates to repairing and maintaining public works rather than constructing them" (274 N.Y. at 363, 9 N.E.2d 9). However, the work must be " construction-like labor" in order to qualify ( Matter of Twin State CCS Corp. v. Roberts, 72 N.Y.2d 897, 899, 532 N.Y.S.2d 746, 528 N.E.2d 1219 [1988] ). The prevailing wage requirement " applies only to workers involved in the construction, replacement, maintenance [or] repair of ‘ public works' " ( Brukhman, 94 N.Y.2d at 396, 705 N.Y.S.2d 558, 727 N.E.2d 116, quoting Varsity Tr. v. Saporita, 71 A.D.2d 643, 644, 418 N.Y.S.2d 667 [2d Dept.1979], aff'd [975 N.Y.S.2d 375]48 N.Y.2d 767, 423 N.Y.S.2d 910, 399 N.E.2d 941 [1979] ). Finally, " [t]o be a public work the project's primary objective must be to benefit the public" (

Page 536

Matter of 60 Mkt. St. Assoc. v. Hartnett, 153 A.D.2d 205, 207, 551 N.Y.S.2d 346 [3d Dept.1990], aff'd for reasons stated below 76 N.Y.2d 993, 564 N.Y.S.2d 713, 565 N.E.2d 1264 [1990]; see also e.g. [997 N.E.2d 1227] Matter of Hart v. Holtzman, 215 A.D.2d 175, 176, 626 N.Y.S.2d 145 [1st Dept.1995]; Matter of Vulcan Affordable Hous. Corp. v. Hartnett, 151 A.D.2d 84, 86-87, 545 N.Y.S.2d 952 [3d Dept.1989]; Matter of Miele v. Joseph, 280 A.D. 408, 409-410, 113 N.Y.S.2d 689 [1952], aff'd 305 N.Y. 667, 112 N.E.2d 764 [1953] ).

Here, the Appellate Division believed itself to be bound by Brukhman v. Giuliani. That case presented the " question whether the prevailing wage provision of the New York State Constitution (art I, § 17) applies to public assistance beneficiaries who are statutorily required to participate in a Work Experience Program ... as a condition of continued receipt of monetary grants" from the New York City Department of Social Services ( Brukhman, 94 N.Y.2d at 390, 705 N.Y.S.2d 558, 727 N.E.2d 116). Recipients, who were assigned to work at not-for-profit organizations and New York City agencies, challenged a method of calculation of the required hours of participation, whereby the amount of benefits received was divided by the federal minimum wage. Recipients wanted the calculations to be based on the applicable prevailing wage rate under New York law, which was a higher rate, thus generating a lower number of hours they would have to work. The work in question " ranged from skilled electrical and painting work to office clerical functions" (id. at 391, 705 N.Y.S.2d 558, 727 N.E.2d 116).

We held that the recipients were not entitled to the requested prevailing wage calculations for two principal reasons. They were not " in the employ of" anyone within the meaning of the constitutional provision ( id. at 395-396, 705 N.Y.S.2d 558, 727 N.E.2d 116). Additionally, " a department of a municipality— even though it may enter into agreements with the municipality to provide Program positions— does not qualify as a ‘ contractor or subcontractor’ within the meaning of the constitutional provision" and " the other entities cooperating with the Work Experience referrals do not fall within the classification of construction and organized labor-related contractors" ( id. at 395, 705 N.Y.S.2d 558, 727 N.E.2d 116). Although at one point we stated that " plaintiffs were not engaged in ‘ public work’ within the envisioned scope of that constitutional term of art" ( id. at 393, 705 N.Y.S.2d 558, 727 N.E.2d 116), we noted that " since plaintiffs do not meet the other requisites of this constitutional entitlement, we need not parse these facial claims to determine whether some might be deemed to squeeze into the ‘ public work’ column" ( id. at 396, 705 N.Y.S.2d 558, 727 N.E.2d 116). To the extent we decided the issue, our holding was that the recipients were not employed upon " public works" simply because they

Page 537

were assigned to work at a city agency or an entity cooperating with a city program; they would have to show that they were involved in " construction, replacement, maintenance [or] repair" ( id. at 396, 705 N.Y.S.2d 558, 727 N.E.2d 116)— a factor that is not disputed in the present case. In short, Brukhman is not instructive on the issue of whether a vessel is a " public work" and the Appellate Division erred in considering the case dispositive. Far more instructive is the above-cited case law holding that the primary purpose or objective of a project must be public in order for it to be a public work.

[975 N.Y.S.2d 376]V

The current edition of Black's Law Dictionary defines " public works" as " [s]tructures (such as roads or dams) built by the government for public use and paid for by public funds" (Black's Law Dictionary 1746 [9th ed. 2009] ). More pertinently, given the nineteenth-century origin of the law we are concerned with, the first edition of Black's Law Dictionary defined " public works" as " [w]orks, whether of construction [997 N.E.2d 1228] or adaptation, undertaken and carried out by the national, state, or municipal authorities, and designed to subserve some purpose of public necessity, use, or convenience; such as public buildings, roads, aqueducts, parks, etc." (Black's Law Dictionary 964 [1st ed. 1891]; see also Black's Law Dictionary 1231 [2d ed. 1910] [same] ).[4]

Similarly broad definitions of " public works" are found in other dictionaries— " works such as roads, railways, bridges, etc. constructed for public use or service at public cost" (Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged 1368 [25th ed. 1950] ); " works (as schools, highways, docks) constructed for public use or enjoyment esp[ecially] when financed and owned by the government" (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary 1006 [11th ed. 2003] ); or " construction or engineering operations carried out by or for the State or local government on behalf of the community" (The Oxford English

Page 538

Dictionary Third Edition [published on OED Online while in progress], available at http:// www. oed. com). [5]

Two central aspects of the meaning of " public works" may be discerned from the dictionaries— public works are works paid for by public funds and made for public use or other benefit. Although the illustrative examples given in dictionary entries are frequently fixed structures, it is clear that the notion that a " public work" must be attached to the land is not part of its central meaning.

VI

We therefore conclude that a three-prong test should be applied to determine whether a particular project is subject to the prevailing wage requirements of Labor Law § 220 and article I, § 17 of the State Constitution. First, a public agency must be a party to a contract involving the employment of laborers, workers, or mechanics. Second, the contract must concern a project that primarily involves construction-like labor and is paid for by public funds. Third, the primary objective or function of the work product must be the use or other benefit of the general public.

We recognize that this test will have to be applied on a case-by-case basis in order for its contours to be fully explored. Our holding is consistent, however, with Appellate Division cases ruling that a work is not public when— although " it serves a public function" such as " the rehabilitation of neighborhoods" [975 N.Y.S.2d 377]( Vulcan Affordable Hous. Corp., 151 A.D.2d at 87, 545 N.Y.S.2d 952) and is paid for in large part by public funds— its objective is private residence ( see id. ), or it " is used for a specific and narrowly defined group" of private citizens ( Cattaraugus Community Action v. Hartnett, 166 A.D.2d 891, 891, 560 N.Y.S.2d 550 [4th Dept.1990] ).

As to the facts underlying this appeal, the application of the law is straightforward. Plaintiffs worked on such vessels as the Staten Island Ferry boats, city fireboats, and municipal garbage barges. A ferry boat is, of course, made for the use of [997 N.E.2d 1229] the general public, as is a bus or train. While we recognize that a fireboat, tug or barge is not made to be used by the public, there is no doubt that its function is to serve the general public. For example, a New York City fireboat is used by firefighters for the

Page 539

benefit of the entire City's public. There is no justification for making fine distinctions between vessels according to whether or not members of the public have access to them. We have not differentiated buildings used by public employees according to whether there is public access ( see Twin State CCS Corp., 72 N.Y.2d at 899, 532 N.Y.S.2d 746, 528 N.E.2d 1219). The dispositive question is whether their primary function is to serve the general public.

Accordingly, the order of the Appellate Division should be reversed, with costs, and plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of liability granted.

Chief Judge LIPPMAN and Judges GRAFFEO, READ, SMITH and RIVERA concur; Judge ABDUS-SALAAM taking no part.

Order reversed, with costs, and plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of liability granted.


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