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Loehr v. New York State Unified Court System

Supreme Court of New York, Second Department

May 3, 2017

Susan Newman Loehr, Appellant-Respondent,
v.
New York State Unified Court System, et al., Respondents- Appellants. Index No. 13054/11

          Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP, White Plains, NY (Robert A. Spolzino former of counsel on the brief and Allison M. Holubis of counsel), for appellant-respondent.

          John W. McConnell, Albany, NY (John J. Sullivan and Lee Alan Adlerstein of counsel), for respondents-appellants.

          REINALDO E. RIVERA, J.P. CHERYL E. CHAMBERS LEONARD B. AUSTIN VALERIE BRATHWAITE NELSON, JJ.

          DECISION & ORDER

         Appeal from an order of the Supreme Court, Westchester County (Donald F. Cerio, Jr., J.), entered July 6, 2012, and appeal and cross appeal from an order and judgment (one paper) of that court entered August 29, 2014. The order and judgment, insofar as appealed from, among other things, dismissed so much of the amended complaint/petition as sought a lump sum payment representing an increase in the salary of the plaintiff/petitioner for the period of April 1, 2011, through March 29, 2012, and insofar as cross-appealed from, among other things, awarded the plaintiff/petitioner a lump sum payment representing deferred compensation for the period of April 1, 2008, through March 31, 2011.

         ORDERED that the appeal from the order is dismissed as abandoned, without costs or disbursements; and it is further, ORDERED that the order and judgment is modified, on the law, (1) by deleting the provision thereof granting that branch of the defendants/respondents' cross motion which was for summary judgment dismissing so much of the amended complaint/petition as sought a lump sum payment for the difference between the compensation to which the plaintiff/petitioner would have been entitled and the compensation she actually received during the period of April 1, 2011, through March 29, 2012, and as sought to annul the related portion of the determination of the defendant/respondent Chief Administrative Judge Anne Pfau dated April 1, 2011, and substituting therefor a provision denying that branch of the cross motion, (2) by deleting the provision thereof denying that branch of the plaintiff/petitioner's motion which was for summary judgment declaring that the plaintiff/petitioner is entitled to receive the difference between $135, 374 and the compensation she actually received during the period of April 1, 2011, through March 29, 2012, and annulling the related portion of the determination of the defendant/respondent Chief Administrative Judge Anne Pfau dated April 1, 2011, and substituting therefor a provision granting that branch of the motion, and (3) by deleting the second and third decretal paragraphs of the order and judgment; as so modified, the order and judgment is affirmed, with costs to the plaintiff/petitioner, and the matter is remitted to the Supreme Court, Westchester County, for the entry of an appropriate amended order and judgment, adding declarations that the plaintiff was entitled, pursuant to chapter chapter 276 of the Laws of 2008, to a lump sum payment of her salary increases, which had been deferred for the period beginning on April 1, 2008, and ending on March 31, 2011, and that the plaintiff was also entitled to receive the difference between $135, 374 and the compensation she actually received during the period beginning on April 1, 2011, and ending on March 29, 2012.

         Initially, the appeal by the defendants/respondents from the order entered July 6, 2012, must be dismissed as abandoned (see 555 W. John St., LLC v Westbury Jeep Chrysler Dodge, Inc., ___A.D.3d ___, 2017 NY Slip Op 02769 [2d Dept 2017]), as the brief they submitted does not request reversal or modification of any portion of that order.

         In 2008, the New York State Legislature enacted chapter 276 of the Laws of 2008 (hereinafter chapter 276), which called for a deferral of any increases to salaries in excess of $115, 000 for nonjudicial officers or employees of the defendant/respondent New York State Unified Court System (hereinafter the UCS), until a law was passed increasing the annual salaries of Supreme Court Justices to an amount greater than $136, 700, or March 31, 2011, whichever occurred first (see chapter 276[6]). Chapter 276(6) provided that on the date the deferral ended, "the basic annual salary of the affected employee... shall be adjusted to equal such amount as it would have equaled on such date had there been no deferral" and "as soon as practicable thereafter, such employee... shall be entitled to a lump sum payment for the difference between the compensation to which he or she would have been entitled had there been no deferral and the compensation he or she actually received during the period of the deferral." Chapter 276(7) further provided, however, that "any increase in compensation, including increases in basic annual salary, increments or partial increments, or bonuses, provided by sections three, four, five and six of this act or otherwise authorized by law: (a) may be withheld in whole or in part from any nonjudicial officer or employee not in a collective negotiating unit when in the opinion of the chief administrator, such increase is not warranted or is not appropriate."

         In 2008, when chapter 276 was enacted, the plaintiff/petitioner (hereinafter the plaintiff) was earning an annual salary of $115, 299, at a salary grade of JG-30. Her salary would have increased to $122, 321 in April 2008; $125, 991 in April 2009; and $131, 032 in April 2010. In November 2010, while the salary cap was still in effect, the plaintiff was appointed as the Westchester County Commissioner of Jurors, at a salary grade of JG-32. Upon that appointment, the plaintiff normally would have earned $135, 374. However, her salary remained capped at $115, 299.

         Pursuant to chapter 276(6), the deferral period ended on March 31, 2011, because the annual salaries of Supreme Court Justices remained unchanged. By letter dated April 1, 2011 (hereinafter the 2011 Letter), the defendant/respondent Chief Administrative Judge Anne Pfau (hereinafter the CAJ) notified the plaintiff that, "in light of the fiscal crisis, we are unable to lift the cap on managerial salaries this year."

         In July 2011, the plaintiff commenced this hybrid action and proceeding against the UCS and the CAJ (hereinafter together the defendants), seeking, inter alia, a judgment declaring that she was entitled to a lump sum payment in the amount of her salary that had been deferred for the period of April 1, 2008, through March 31, 2011, plus the amount of a salary increase effective April 1, 2011, as well as a judgment pursuant to CPLR article 78 vacating and annulling the CAJ's determination in the 2011 Letter that the plaintiff's salary should remain capped at $115, 299.

         Thereafter, on January 16, 2013, the salary cap was lifted, retroactive to March 29, 2012, and the plaintiff's annual salary was increased to $135, 559, at a salary grade of JG-32. It is undisputed that the plaintiff received a lump sum payment for the pay differential for the period beginning on April 1, 2012, and ending on January 16, 2013. However, the plaintiff never received a lump sum payment of her deferred pay for the period beginning on April 1, 2008, and ending on March 31, 2011, or payment of the salary differential for the period beginning on April 1, 2011, and ending on March 29, 2012.

         The plaintiff subsequently moved for summary judgment on the amended complaint/petition, and the defendants cross-moved for summary judgment dismissing the amended complaint/petition and the proceeding. In an order and judgment entered August 29, 2014, the Supreme Court granted the plaintiff's motion in part. The court awarded the plaintiff only "a lump sum payment to be paid forthwith for the difference between the compensation to which she would have been entitled and the compensation she actually received during the period of deferral between April 1, 2008, and March 31, 2011, " and, in effect, annulled the related portion of the CAJ's determination in the 2011 Letter. The court also granted the defendants' cross motion in part. The court dismissed so much of the amended complaint/petition as sought to recover payment for "the difference between the compensation to which [the plaintiff] would have been entitled and the compensation she actually received during the period [between] April 1, 2011, and March 29, 2012." Further on the cross motion, the court determined that a rational basis existed for the CAJ's determination to withhold the plaintiff's salary increase from April 1, 2011, through March 29, 2012, and, in effect, denied so much of the amended complaint/petition, and dismissed so much of the proceeding as sought to annul the related portion of the CAJ's determination. The plaintiff appeals, and the defendants cross-appeal, from the order and judgment.

         Two related questions are presented. The first concerns the statutory interpretation of sections 6 and 7 of chapter 276. The second concerns the effect of the 2011 Letter in light of the defendants' authority under chapter 276.

         "Any statute or regulation... must be interpreted and enforced in a reasonable... manner in accordance with its manifest intent and purpose" (Matter of Sabot v Lavine, 42 N.Y.2d 1068, 1069). "[W]hen presented with a question of statutory interpretation, [the court's] primary consideration is to ascertain and give effect to the intention of the Legislature" (Samiento v World Yacht Inc., 10 N.Y.3d 70, 77 [internal quotation marks omitted]). In that regard, "because the statutory text is the clearest indicator of legislative intent, the starting point in any case of interpretation must always be the language itself, giving effect to the plain meaning thereof" (Hakimi v Cantwell Landscaping & Design, Inc., 50 A.D.3d 848, 850 [internal quotation marks and brackets omitted]; see Matter of Carver v Nassau County Interim Fin. Auth., 142 A.D.3d 1003, 1007). "When the plain language of the statute is precise and unambiguous, it is determinative" (Matter of Washington Post Co. v New York State Ins. Dept., 61 N.Y.2d 557, 565). "Moreover, a statute must be construed as a ...


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