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Retirement Board of Stoneham v. Contributory Retirement Appeal Board

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Middlesex

December 22, 2016

RETIREMENT BOARD OF STONEHAM
v.
CONTRIBUTORY RETIREMENT APPEAL BOARD & another.[1]

          Heard: October 5, 2016.

         Retirement. Municipal Corporations, Retirement board. Public Employment, Retirement. Contributory Retirement Appeal Board.

         Civil action commenced in the Superior Court Department on February 6, 2014.

         The case was heard by Robert L. Ullmann, J., on motions for judgment on the pleadings. The Supreme Judicial Court on its own initiative transferred the case from the Appeals Court. Douglas S. Martland, Assistant Attorney General, for Contributory Retirement Appeal Board.

          Thomas F. Gibson for Christine DeFelice.

          Michael Sacco for the plaintiff.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Botsford, Lenk, Hines, Gaziano, Lowy, & Budd, JJ.

          LOWY, J.

         This case requires us to answer two questions: (1) whether a municipal retirement board possesses absolute discretion to terminate a part-time employee's membership in a retirement system to which that board has granted the employee membership; and (2) even if such a board does not have the power to terminate a part-time employee's membership, whether a "separation from [an employee's] service" under G. L. c. 32, § 3 (1) (a.) (i), occurs when a part-time employee working two jobs for the same municipal employer ceases to work only one of those jobs. We answer both questions in the negative and reverse the judgment of the Superior Court.

         Background.

         Christine DeFelice began working on a part-time basis for the Stoneham school department (department) in November, 2000. In April, 2001, she took on a second part-time job with the department to fill a temporary vacancy, increasing her weekly workload from nineteen and one-half hours per week to over thirty hours per week for the ensuing nine weeks. At the end of the nine-week period, DeFelice continued to work for the department on a part-time basis until at least June, 2009, only occasionally working more than nineteen and one-half hours per week.[2]

         In 2009, DeFelice sought retroactive membership in the Stoneham retirement system as an employee of the department, based on the nine-week period in 2001 during which she worked over thirty hours per week. Under the membership eligibility criteria for part-time employees established by the Stoneham retirement board (board) that were in effect during 2001, Stoneham employees were eligible for membership in the retirement system if they were scheduled to work more than thirty hours per week for a period of more than seven days.[3]Initially, the board denied DeFelice's membership application, because her increase in hours was temporary. In August, 2010, the board reconsidered its position and granted DeFelice retroactive membership in the Stoneham retirement system for the nine-week period in the spring of 2001, but denied her membership for the subsequent time during which she remained a part-time employee of the department. The board concluded that DeFelice was not eligible following the nine-week period because her weekly hours did not continue to satisfy the criteria.

         DeFelice appealed from the board's determination, seeking membership for the years she continued to work for the department as a part-time employee.[4] The Contributory Retirement Appeal Board (CRAB) assigned the case to the division of administrative law appeals (DALA). DALA determined that, once the board granted DeFelice membership, it could not unilaterally terminate her membership status. DALA concluded that the statute governing membership in a public retirement system precluded the board, in the absence of statutorily specified exceptions, from terminating the membership of individuals who had been granted membership and continued working for the same municipal employer. The board objected, arguing that it possessed authority to terminate the membership of non-full-time employees who failed to satisfy its membership criteria. CRAB adopted DALA's factual findings and affirmed its decision. The board sought review pursuant to G. L. c. 30A, § 14. A judge in the Superior Court reversed CRAB's decision, and DeFelice appealed. We transferred the case here by our own motion, and now reverse the judgment of the Superior Court.

         Statutory scheme.

         Massachusetts law permits a municipality to establish a contributory retirement system for the municipality's employees. See G. L. c. 32, § 20 (4). The law further provides for the establishment of municipal retirement boards to manage the retirement systems in a manner consistent with applicable laws. G. L. c. 32, § 20 (4) (b), (5) (b). Municipal retirement boards have the power to make rules and regulations "consistent with law, " subject to approval by the public employee retirement administration commission. G. L. c. 32, § 20 (5) (b) .

         General Laws c. 32, § 3 (2), sets forth various criteria that establish "eligibility" for membership in a retirement system. For example, individuals who are "employees, " and therefore "regularly employed, "[5] are generally eligible for membership. G. L. c. 32, § 3 (2) (a.) (x) . However, municipal retirement boards possess "full jurisdiction" to determine the eligibility of "part-time, provisional, temporary, temporary provisional, seasonal or intermittent employment or service of any employee in any governmental unit."[6] G. L. c. 32, § 3 (2) (d) .

         Satisfying the eligibility criteria for membership does not automatically confer membership upon an employee. See G. L. c. 32, § 1 (defining "member" as "any employee included in" retirement system [emphasis added]). See also Manning v. Contributory Retirement Appeal Bd., 29 Mass.App.Ct. 253, 255 (1990) (non-full-time employee was not member of retirement system in absence of determination by pertinent retirement board). Relevant to this case, an employee who is eligible to become a member, but who fails or chooses not to do so, "may apply for and be admitted to membership if [the employee is] under the maximum [entry] age for [the employee's] group on the date of [the employee's] application; provided, that during [the employee's] present period of service [the employee] had previously been eligible for membership" (emphasis added). G. L. c. 32, ยง 3 (3). In other ...


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