Providence County Superior Court
For Plaintiff: Frederic A. Marzilli, Esq.
For Defendant: Michael P. Robinson, Esq.; John H. McCann, Esq.
Before this Court is an appeal of final agency action by the Employees' Retirement System of Rhode Island (ERSRI) denying Ann Capineri's (Petitioner or Ms. Capineri) request to purchase retirement service credits (service credits) for the half years that she did not work while engaged in a job share program, working half days for a full year. ERSRI denied Petitioner's request, holding that a job share does not entitle the employee to purchase credit for the unworked portion of the job under G.L. 1956 § 16-16-5. Jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 42-35-15. For the reasons set forth herein, the Court affirms the decision of ERSRI.
Facts and Travel
The Request to Purchase Credits and the Initial Denial
The material facts of this case are not in dispute. Ms. Capineri was employed as a school teacher in the Cumberland school system from 1976 until her retirement in 2009. (Admin. R. 18 at 6.) From 1989 until 1995, Petitioner participated in a fifty percent job share program that was approved by the Cumberland School Committee. Id. at 6. Ms. Capineri returned to her full-time position beginning the 1995-1996 school year, and she continued full-time until her retirement in 2009. Id. at 6, 10.
In 2005, Petitioner contacted ERSRI, inquiring about purchasing service credit for the years she participated in the job share program. (Admin. R. 1, 2.) ERSRI advised Petitioner that she had received one-half (1/2) year credit for each job share year and was not eligible to purchase credit for time she did not work while participating in the job share program. (Admin. R. 1, 3.) Before her retirement in 2009, Petitioner filed a formal request with ERSRI to purchase six half years of service credit for the fifty percent portions of the six school years in which she did not work, while she job shared. (Admin. R. 9.)
On September 30, 2009, ERSRI, through its Executive Director, Frank Karpinski, denied Petitioner's request to purchase six half school year service credits for the time spent participating in the job share program. (Admin. R. 11.) ERSRI based its denial on several factors including (1) § 16-16-5(d),  which states that any job share teacher shall receive credit for the part-time service rendered; (2) Petitioner provided no information to ERSRI indicating Petitioner took a leave of absence from her job; and (3) Petitioner's employer, the Cumberland School Department, submitted information to ERSRI indicating Petitioner worked half-time in a full-time position and earned one-half of the full-time salary. Id.; see also Admin. R. 6.
Petitioner's Appeal to the Hearing Officer
The Petitioner appealed ERSRI's initial denial of her request to purchase, and on January 28, 2011, a hearing on that appeal was held before Hearing Officer Charles M. Koutsogiane (Hearing Officer). (Admin. R. 15 at 1.) The Hearing Officer heard testimony from Ms. Capineri and ERSRI Executive Director Karpinski. (Admin. R. 18 at 6-10.) Ms. Capineri explained the process she went through to begin job-sharing in the 1989-90 school year. Id. at 6. She explained that she and her job share partner each worked for half the day, with a half-hour overlap in the middle of the day for coordination, each working "a little more than half time" to teach, coordinate, and attend meetings. Id. at 8-9. Ms. Capineri testified that the job share program was a "way of staying in touch with education" while she took time to raise her own children. Id. at 9. On cross-examination, Ms. Capineri testified that her teaching position had previously been filled by herself, and during her job share years, the same position was filled by herself and another teacher. Id. at 11-12. She additionally testified that she never sought a formal leave of absence from her employer. Id. at 15.
Mr. Karpinski provided background on the method that teachers' service credits are earned, specifically that teachers receive credits based on days worked, with adjustments for those working partial days. Id. at 22-26. On cross-examination, he testified that under § 16-16-5, teachers working part-time would accrue credits differently than those working full-time, with their credits accruing based on the number of periods that they work each day. Id. at 29-31. He additionally testified that there is no statutory provision that allows a part-time teacher to purchase service credits for hours beyond those that they worked. Id. at 36. Additionally, several individual and joint exhibits were admitted into evidence including eight letters dated from March 2005 to December 2010 detailing Petitioner's request to purchase service credit and ERSRI's denial of Petitioner's request.
In his decision, issued on January 6, 2012, the Hearing Officer concluded that Petitioner participated in a voluntary, part-time job share program for which she received the appropriate service credit for the work she actually performed and that nothing in the Title 16 statutes grants service credit entitlement, whether awardable or purchasable, for the unworked portion of the job share. Id. at 10, 30-31. Accordingly, the Hearing Officer's decision affirmed ERSRI's denial of Petitioner's requests to purchase service credits. Id. at 32.
Retirement Board Hearing and Decision
In accordance with ERSRI regulations,  Petitioner appealed the Hearing Officer's decision to the full Retirement Board (Board) on January 18, 2012. Admin. R. 19. At a hearing on July 11, 2012, counsel for Petitioner (Attorney Marzilli) and ERSRI (Attorney Robinson) argued over the definition of a job share and what constitutes a leave of absence under the applicable statutory authority of § 16-16-5. Admin R. 27 at 5-7, 8-12, 15-16.
Attorney Robinson first reiterated the findings of fact and decision that the Hearing Officer made regarding Petitioner's situation. Id. at 5-6. Attorney Marzilli then responded, arguing that "a partial leave of absence is reasonable,  if not more reasonable, based on the favorable treatment that teachers receive under this retirement statute, § 16-16-5." Id. at 10. Attorney Robinson countered that when he asked Petitioner on cross-examination at the hearing on January 28, 2011 whether she applied for a formal leave of absence, Petitioner answered in the negative. Id. at 14. Attorney Marzilli subsequently asked the Board to make a "determination that it is unfair to allow a teacher that is on maternity leave that takes a complete year off to be treated better than someone who works half time." Id. at 12. Executive Director Karpinski inserted an explanation as to why Petitioner's participation in a job share prohibited her from purchasing additional credits:
"If your job is a 20-hour job, you get full credit for it. That is a job, you only worked 20 hours. If you are in a half-time job, and you are in job share, you only have a half-time job. There's not a full-time job for your purchase to go through." Id. at 25.
Ultimately, the Board voted 9-3 to affirm the decision of the Hearing Officer. Id. at 27-28. Petitioner timely ...