Longley v. State Employees Retirement Com'n

Decision Date27 December 2005
Docket NumberNo. 26186.,26186.
Citation887 A.2d 904,92 Conn.App. 712
PartiesDonald M. LONGLEY et al. v. STATE EMPLOYEES RETIREMENT COMMISSION.
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court

Donald M. Longley, pro se, with whom was Richard K. Greenberg, pro se, the appellants (plaintiffs).

Richard D. O'Connor, with whom, on the brief, was Glenn A. Duhl, Hartford, for the appellee (defendant).

LAVERY, C.J., and GRUENDEL and PETERS, Js.

PETERS, J.

This is a case of statutory interpretation. In a series of interlocking statutes, our legislature has recognized that, at the time of their retirement from state service, state employees are entitled to compensation for accrued, unused vacation time and to longevity payments. In this case, we must decide in what manner the legislature intended these entitlements to be reflected in retirement income.

General Statutes § 5-162(a), a portion of the State Employees Retirement Act (act), provides that "[t]he retirement income for which a member is eligible shall be determined from his retirement date, years of state service and base salary. . . ." As defined by General Statutes § 5-162(b)(2), "base salary" is the average annual salary received by a retiree for his three highest-paid years of state service.1 Annual salary is defined by General Statutes § 5-154(h) as any payment for state service, including longevity payments and payments for accrued vacation time.2 "`[S]tate service' includes a period equivalent to accrued vacation time for which payment is made under section 5-252." General Statutes § 5-154(m)(6).3

The issue in this case is whether, in the calculation of retirement income, accrued vacation time and longevity payments should be counted as additions to "state service" or as additions to "base salary." The trial court agreed with the defendant state employees retirement commission (commission) that they should be deemed to be additions to state service. We disagree. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the trial court.

The record reveals the following undisputed facts and procedural history. Pursuant to the 2003 Early Retirement Incentive Program; Public Acts 2003, No. 03-02; the plaintiffs, former assistant attorneys general Richard K. Greenberg and Donald M. Longley, retired from active employment with the state on June 1, 2003. Each retired as a vested Tier I, Plan B member of the state employees retirement system. Accordingly, the act and related statutes govern the calculation of their retirement benefits.

Pursuant to § 5-162, a retiree's income, for retirement purposes, is determined by his average covered earnings for his three highest paid years of state service. The plaintiffs' three highest paid years of state service were June 1, 2000, through May 31, 2001; June 1, 2001, through May 31, 2002; and June 1, 2002, through May 31, 2003.4

During each of these years, the plaintiffs received two longevity payments and, subsequent to retirement, each plaintiff also received payment for his accrued but unused vacation time and a final prorated longevity payment.5 When they retired, their accrued vacation time also was recognized for a second purpose, as state service, in addition to their actual state service of more than thirty years.6 See General Statutes § 5-154(m)(6).

In their pension applications, the plaintiffs asked for their base salaries to be calculated by including their longevity payments and their payments for accrued vacation time as part of their regular salary for their final year of state service. They recognized that this salary calculation might be subject to reduction if it resulted in an annual salary of more than 130 percent of the average of their two previous years' covered earnings. See General Statutes § 5-162(b)(2). Apart from such a reduction, however, they maintained that their base salary should be calculated by including the vacation and longevity payments in their annual salary during the last year of state employment.

The commission denied the plaintiffs' prayers for relief. It assigned dispositive meaning to the temporal constraints imposed by §§ 5-162 and 5-154. In particular, it noted that "base salary . . . is the average salary received for the three highest-paid years of state service" and that subsection (n) of General Statutes § 5-154 defines a year of state service as twelve consecutive months.7 According to the commission, a lump sum payment for accrued vacation time cannot be factored into the final year's salary directly, as the plaintiffs contend. To do so would impermissibly add time to the calculation of a retiree's three highest paid years of state service because, under § 5-154(m), state service is defined as including "accrued vacation time" and under § 5-154(n) a year of state service can include only twelve calendar months.

The commission took the position, therefore, that compliance with the applicable statutory mandates requires recalculation of a retiree's final three years of service. This recalculation involves adding the number of months of service to which a retiree is entitled by virtue of his accrued vacation time to the final year of his state employment, at his then prevailing salary, and subtracting the same number of months of service at the beginning of the three year period of state employment, presumably at a lower salary. In the view of the commission, this methodology gives the plaintiffs the benefit of credit for their accrued vacation time and longevity without impairing the underlying time constraints that it views as embedded in the structure of the retirement program.

Because the plaintiffs disagreed with the commission's compensation formula, each of them filed a petition for a declaratory ruling challenging the commission's formula and requesting recalculation of his benefits.8 The trial court dismissed these administrative appeals. The plaintiffs then filed the present appeal with this court.

In their appeal to this court, the plaintiffs seek plenary review of the declaratory ruling issued by the commission and upheld by the trial court. In their view, the trial court (1) improperly deferred to the commission's declaratory ruling and (2) improperly affirmed the commission's calculation of their "base salary." The proper construction of § 5-162 raises a novel question of law on which the existing precedents give little guidance. We are persuaded, however, that the plaintiffs should prevail, and, therefore, we reverse the judgment of the trial court.

I STANDARD OF REVIEW

The first issue in this appeal is whether the trial court applied the proper standard of review in its analysis of the commission's declaratory ruling. The parties agree that, because there was no evidentiary dispute, the petitions for a declaratory ruling raise pure questions of law. The parties also agree that the legal question with which the commission was presented has not been previously examined by a court.

The plaintiffs claim, however, that the trial court, instead of reviewing these legal issues de novo, improperly afforded deference to the commission's conclusions of law. In dismissing the plaintiffs' appeal, the trial court relied not only on its own interpretation of the act, but also on the unanimity of the commission's interpretation and its long-standing and consistent application of that interpretation. We agree with the plaintiffs that the court should have examined the issues independently.

Judicial review of an administrative agency's action is governed by the Uniform Administrative Procedure Act, General Statutes § 4-166 et seq. See General Statutes § 4-183(j).9 "Ordinarily this court affords deference to the construction of a statute applied by the administrative agency empowered by law to carry out the statute's purposes. . . . Cases that present pure questions of law, however, invoke a broader standard of review than is ordinarily involved in deciding whether, in light of the evidence, the agency has acted unreasonably, arbitrarily, illegally or in abuse of its discretion. . . . Furthermore, when a state agency's determination of a question of law has not previously been subject to judicial scrutiny . . . the agency is not entitled to special deference." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) MacDermid, Inc. v. Dept. of Environmental Protection, 257 Conn. 128, 137, 778 A.2d 7 (2001).

Concededly, the construction and application of §§ 5-162(b) and 5-154(h) present issues of law not heretofore considered by the courts. Under these circumstances, the plaintiffs are entitled to plenary review of the claims they raised at trial. See, e.g., Szewczyk v. Dept. of Social Services, 275 Conn. 464, 474, 881 A.2d 259 (2005).

II CONSTRUCTION OF GENERAL STATUTES §§ 5-162 and 5-154

Under § 5-162(a), retirement income is determined by "years of state service" and "base salary." The principal issue in this case is whether, subject only to the 130 percent salary cap imposed by § 5-162(b), the full dollar value of accrued vacation and final longevity payments received by a potential retiree should be added to "salary" received in the final year of state service for the purpose of calculating "base salary."

When interpreting a statute, we look first to its text to ascertain whether its meaning is plain. See General Statutes § 1-2z.10 Although the parties would construe § 5-162 differently, each maintains that the retirement pension act is clear and unambiguous. We find the web of statutory references and cross-references that inform the calculation of retirement pensions more problematic. To decide whether the commission's pension formula violates the statutory scheme of the act, "we seek to determine, in a reasoned manner, the meaning of the statutory language as applied to the facts of [the] case. . . . In seeking to determine that meaning, we look to the words of the statute itself, to the legislative history and circumstances surrounding its enactment, to the...

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