High court to hear Empire Center pension FOIL suit

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Contact: Tim Hoefer, (518) 434-3100

The state’s highest court yesterday agreed to hear the Empire Center’s appeal of lower court rulings that would keep secret the names of pension recipients.

The Court of Appeals decided to review decisions by the Appellate Division’s First and Third Departments, respectively, on Empire Center legal challenges involving the release of pensioners’ identities by the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System (NYSTRS) and the New York City Teachers’ Retirement System (NYCTRS).

The Court also agreed to accept an amicus brief in support of the Empire Center’s position from major news organizations including the Albany Times Union, Auburn Citizen, Buffalo News, Gannett Co. Inc., Hearst Corp., New York Daily News, New York News Publishers Association, New York Post, New York Press Association, New York Times Co., Newsday LLC and the Observer-Dispatch.

Timothy Hoefer, executive director of the Empire Center, called the decision “a ray of hope for public transparency in New York State.”  

Hoefer noted that it is unusual for the Court of Appeals to grant leave to appeal in cases decided unanimously by the Appellate Division.

“We remain confident that the court will validate the public’s right to know how public pension funds are spent,” he said.

The names and pension amounts due to retired NYSTRS members had been released in previous years and have been widely disseminated, both on the Empire Center’s SeeThroughNY.net website and on various newspaper websites. However, the two teachers’ retirement systems justified withholding the information based on a 2011 ruling by the Appellate Division in Manhattan. That court, in turn, upheld the refusal of the New York City Police Pension Fund to release names of police pension recipients to the Empire Center.

Although the Empire Center was seeking only the names of pension recipients, and not addresses or other identifying information, the Appellate Division justices said they felt bound to uphold NYSTRS’ action under a 1983 Court of Appeals decision, which upheld the denial of a FOIL request seeking both names and addresses of retired police officers.  The same case was cited – erroneously, the Empire Center’s attorneys have argued – by Manhattan state courts in the police pension case. In addition, the Empire Center argued that the lower court decisions failed to distinguish between the public’s right to know the name of retirees receiving benefits and the identities of those designated by their retirees as beneficiaries, which have never been treated as public.