A former judge’s attempt to qualify permanently for state health insurance coverage has been rejected by his former court.
Court of Claims Judge Alan Marin (See Profile) ruled in Holdman v. Office of Court Administration, 121182, that both benefits statutes and precedents prevent him from accepting Robert Holdman’s petition to correct what amounts to the ministerial error by state officials who wrongly advised Holdman that he would become eligible for state health coverage after leaving the Judiciary.
Holdman, who was designated as an acting state Supreme Court justice in Westchester County while a Court of Claims judge from 2005 to 2011, said he timed the effective date of his resignation from state service, Sept. 30, 2011, with the understanding that he would continue paying premiums into his health plan with the state Health Insurance Plan (NYSHIP).
Holdman said his goal was to become vested in the plan at the end of 2014 upon having being in the system for 10 years.
Once he reached age 55, vesting in the plan offered the prospect of family coverage for $250 a month versus $1,600 a month for non-vested employees.
In fact, Holdman said, he was told by William Gilchrist of the judicial benefits office of the Office of Court Administration not to participate in his new employer’s health plan but to continue paying premiums into the state plan. If there was an interruption in payments to the state plan, Gilchrist warned Holdman, he would not be permitted to rejoin it.
According to the ruling, Holdman, who is now 49, realized there was a problem in January 2012 when he was told by Gilchrist that the time Holdman had spent as an assistant district attorney in the Bronx from August 1991 to June 2005 would not count toward being vested in the health plan.
Since his judicial service of just over six years was well shy of the 10 years he needed for vesting in the NYSHIP plan, Gilchrist told Holdman he would not be eligible.
Had he known that, Holdman told the Court of Claims, he would have remained as a judge for three more years and nine months in order to reach the required 10 years.
Holdman was one of the more outspoken judges in the late 2000s and early 2010s as the Judiciary lobbied for its first pay raise since January 1999. In his resignation letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo, Holdman said the lack of judicial pay raises was the "sole" reason he was leaving for the private sector (NYLJ, Sept. 15, 2011).
"It is no secret that I left for financial reasons," Holdman, who is now general counsel for the West Legend Corp., said in an interview this week. "It was a decision that I made for my family but I absolutely would have stayed on as a judge if I had known this. To ensure a lifetime of health insurance, with me having three kids under five, I would have eked out three more years as a judge."
Holdman had been reappointed by then-governor David Paterson in 2005 to a term on the Court of Claims that would have expired at the end of 2019.
Holdman contended before the Court of Claims that the state should be estopped from going back on its initial advice, even though that advice was erroneous.
But Marin said a ministerial error by the state or a municipality acting in its governmental capacity, as opposed to its proprietary capacity, is "immune from suit unless a special relationship running to the individual, rather than the public at large can be seen." The judge said no such special relationship exists in Holdman’s case as the Court of Appeals defined it in Cuffy v. City of New York, 69 NY2d 255 (1987).
Marin noted that the Court of Appeals, to prevent fraud and avoid a violation of the doctrine of separation of powers, has held that generally, "government agencies are not subject to the defense of estoppel" [see Matter of E.F.S. Ventures v. Foster, 71 NY2d 359 (1988)].
He added, "if incorrect information dispensed by a governmental entity (or entities), at variance with a given statutory/regulatory scheme, can readily be converted into an enforceable promise, such would undermine, if not eviscerate, not only the Court of Appeals’ holdings on governmental estoppel" in E.F.S. Ventures, but those on immunity enunciated in McLean v. City of New York, 12 NY3d 194 (2009) and Valdez v. City of New York, 18 NY3d 69 (2011).
Marin said Holdman has failed to present an "unusual set of facts and resulting injustice…that would give rise to an enforceable promise against the State by estoppel."
Holdman said he was considering whether to appeal.
Since his case came before the Court of Claims, Holdman said he knows former colleagues who had similarly investigated what the status would be of their health care coverage if they left the Judiciary and who were under the same misapprehension that previous public employment outside the courts would count toward vestment.
"I think that was something that a number of my colleagues had no idea about until they learned about my situation," Holdman said.
William Fleming of Gage, Spencer & Fleming in Manhattan represented Holdman.
Assistant Attorneys General Joan Matalavage and Cheryl Rameau defended the state.
David Bookstaver, a spokesperson for the court system, declined to comment.
@|Joel Stashenko can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.