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Sullivan v. Coventry Municipal Employees' Retirement Plan

Superior Court of Rhode Island

January 28, 2016

RICHARD P. SULLIVAN
v.
COVENTRY MUNICIPAL EMPLOYEES' RETIREMENT PLAN, TED PRZYBYLA, as FINANCE DIRECTOR/TREASURER OF THE TOWN OF COVENTRY and GARY P. COTE, KERRY L. MCGEE, THADDEUS JENDZEJEC, KAREN M. CARLSON and GREGORY LABOISSONNIERE, in their capacities as MEMBERS OF THE TOWN COUNCIL OF THE TOWN OF COVENTRY AND AS ADMINISTRATORS OF THE TOWN PLAN

Kent County Superior Court

For Plaintiff: Robert D. Goldberg, Esq.

For Defendant: Vincent F. Ragosta, Jr., Esq. Marc DeSisto, Esq.

DECISION

GALLO, J.

This case involves a dispute between Richard P. Sullivan (Plaintiff) and the Town of Coventry (the Town), through its Finance Director, the Coventry Town Council, and the Coventry Municipal Employees' Retirement Plan (collectively, Defendants) as to the denial of Plaintiff's request for a pension. Plaintiff filed the instant suit alleging a breach of contract and requesting a declaratory judgment setting forth his rights under the Town's pension plan. The matter before the Court is the Defendants' motion for summary judgment, in which they argue (1) that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to decide the matter and, in the alternative, (2) that the review of the decision of the Town Council sitting as Plan Administrator is subject to arbitrary and capricious review only and should be affirmed.

I Facts and Travel

Plaintiff was employed by the Town in a variety of positions from February 1986 to December 2008. He served as a probate judge, an assistant solicitor, the Town Moderator, and Town Manager in that time. Based on his service in these various positions, he requested a pension from the Town.

After some apparent delay in the consideration of his request for a pension, [1] Plaintiff filed the instant suit against the Town and other Defendants. A series of preliminary motions before the Court resulted in the Town Council, sitting as the Plan Administrator of the pension plan, being ordered to hold a hearing on Plaintiff's pension claim. At that hearing, conducted on January 15, 2015, Plaintiff was represented by counsel and presented testimony and evidence. Plaintiff then submitted a post-hearing memorandum, after which the Town Council convened on January 31, 2015 and voted to deny Plaintiff's request for a pension. The Town Council then issued a written decision explaining its reasoning.

Following this decision, Plaintiff petitioned the Supreme Court for review via writ of certiorari. In an order dated June 12, 2015, the Supreme Court denied Plaintiff's petition, "without prejudice, however, to the petitioner's right to prosecute his Superior Court action[.]" Sullivan v. Coventry Mun. Emps.' Ret. Plan, et al., No. 15-58-M.P. (June 12, 2015). The case is now before the Superior Court for resolution of the issues presented.

II Jurisdiction

The instant case raises a vexing question as to the subject matter jurisdiction of the Superior Court in declaratory judgment actions seeking review of the decisions of town councils sitting as quasi-judicial entities. On the one hand, Defendants insist that the Court is without jurisdiction to decide the controversy before it, as the Supreme Court has held that review of quasi-judicial actions by a town council is available only through certiorari to the Supreme Court. Plaintiff asserts, on the contrary, that jurisdiction is provided through both the Superior Court's general jurisdiction under G.L. 1956 § 8-2-14 and its jurisdiction to issue declaratory judgments under G.L. 1956 §§ 9-30-1 and 9-30-2. Before the Court reaches this dispute, however, it must address the effect of the Supreme Court's denial of Plaintiff's petition for review by writ of certiorari.

A The Petition for Certiorari

Plaintiff contends that the denial of his petition for certiorari operates as a decision on the question of jurisdiction, insofar as he retains the right, as noted by the Supreme Court, to "prosecute his Superior Court action against the [Defendants] . . . to a conclusion." Sullivan, No. 15-58-M.P. Under the Supreme Court Rules of Appellate Procedure, however, "[a] denial of a petition, without more, is not an adjudication on the merits and has no precedential effect, and such action is to be taken as being without prejudice to a further application to this Court or any court for the relief sought." Sup. Ct. R. App. P. 13(e) (Rule 13(e)).

The order entered by the Supreme Court is only a denial of the petition, and the comment contained therein to the effect that Plaintiff retains the right to prosecute this action to a conclusion is merely a reiteration of the terms of Rule 13(e). The denial of his petition for review cannot operate to decide the issue of jurisdiction; the denial "has no precedential effect" and simply is not any kind of "adjudication on the merits" of the claims in his action. Id. The Plaintiff will not be prevented from seeking review after the conclusion of this action because the denial is without prejudice to further application to the Supreme Court. See Rule 13(e). The Supreme Court's order denying Plaintiff's petition for certiorari therefore does not decide the issue of this Court's subject matter jurisdiction.

B Subject Matter Jurisdiction

Subject matter jurisdiction is "an indispensable requisite in any judicial proceeding." Zarrella v. Minn. Mut. Life Ins. Co., 824 A.2d 1249, 1256 (R.I. 2003). It is "the very essence of the court's power to hear and decide a case" and is defined as "jurisdiction over the nature of the case and the type of relief sought[.]" Long v. Dell, Inc., 984 A.2d 1074, 1079 (R.I. 2005) (quoting Black's Law Dictionary 931 (9th ed. 2009)). It is well established that "a claim of lack of subject matter jurisdiction may be raised at any time." Id. at 1078 (quoting Pollard v. Acer Grp., 870 A.2d 429, 433 (R.I. 2005)).

It is clear, at least, that there is no appellate jurisdiction in this Court pursuant to the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). See G.L. 1956 § 42-35-1 (excluding municipalities and municipal boards from reach of APA); see also § 42-35-15 (stating that appeals flow from "contested case[s]" before an agency). The parties do not argue that there is any right to a direct appeal to the Superior Court from a decision of a town council acting as the plan administrator of a pension system. The question, then, is whether an appeal from a town council's quasi-judicial actions must be taken to the Supreme Court by writ of certiorari or may be entertained under the declaratory judgment jurisdiction of the Superior Court. See §§ 9-30-1, 9-30-2.

In Scolardi v. City of Providence, a plaintiff challenged the implementation of a decision of the City of Providence's Retirement Board via a declaratory judgment action in the Superior Court. 751 A.2d 754, 755 (R.I. 2000). That case involved the city failing to pay pension benefits after its retirement board approved a pension. The Supreme Court noted that the declaratory judgment jurisdiction of the Superior Court did not extend to review of the retirement board's decision; the only avenue for relief available in the Superior Court was via a writ of mandamus to compel execution of the retirement board's decision. Id. at 755-56. The Supreme Court specifically held that:

"The trial justice was without authority to conduct the de novo review. In the absence of specific statutory delineation of a particular forum for relief, a party must resort to this Court by way of common law certiorari. Therefore, the trial justice was ...

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