4th Department: Gress v. Brown

The New York State Legislature enacted the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority Act (“the Act”) in 2003 to respond to Buffalo’s regular and “untenable” reliance upon state aid to stabilize its budget.  Pursuant to the Act, the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority (“BFSA”) held power over municipal-employee wages, along with the power to freeze those wages set as part of a collective bargaining agreement (or other similar contracts or interest arbitration awards).

In 2004, the BFSA adopted a resolution which froze all wages, wage rates, and salary levels for all employees in Buffalo, “to the full extent authorized by the Act.”  Buffalo, N.Y., Resolution No. 04 – 35 Wage Freeze, 2 (Apr. 21, 2004), available at http://www.bfsa.state.ny.us/meetings2004/resolutions/res0435.pdf.  The plaintiffs in this case—at-will, seasonal employees of Buffalo’s Public Works Department—commenced this class action against the City and the Mayor, claiming that the BFSA’s actions violated Buffalo’s Living Wage Ordinance by denying them their scheduled wage increases.  Subsequently, they added the BFSA as a defendant to their action and sought a declaratory judgment that the BFSA did not have the authority to freeze their class’s wages.

The BFSA moved for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiffs’ claim against it was time-barred by C.P.L.R. Article 78’s four month limitation period for administrative determinations.  Both the supreme court and the appellate division rejected this argument.  The Court of Appeals reversed both lower courts.  The Court held that, upon precedent, a statute of limitations for a declaratory judgment should be determined by the “gravamen of the claim or the status of the defendant party.”  Solnick v. Whalen, 49 N.Y.2d 224, 229, 401 N.E.2d 190, 193, 425 N.Y.S.2d 68, 71 (1980).  If a declaratory action, such as the one brought by this class, could have been commenced in an alternative proceeding, then the statutorily provided statute of limitations for that proceeding applies instead of the six-year “catch-all” provision.  In the plaintiffs’ case, the Court found that as their contest was only with the application of the wage freeze to their class through the administrative action (not the wage freeze itself), their challenge should have been raised through a C.P.L.R. Article 78 proceeding within the four month time frame, as the BFSA had claimed.

The dissent argued that BFSA’s temporal argument did not change the “gravamen” of the action, and therefore, it would “not become a challenge to an administrative determination”—subjecting it to the four month window—“unless there [had been] a final and binding administrative determination” upon the plaintiffs’ claims.

20 N.Y.3d 957, 982 N.E.2d 595, 958 N.Y.S.2d 675 (2012)

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