Posts tagged with "New York law"

Where the Grantors Intend a Trust to be Modified Jointly, A Surviving Grantor May Not Make Unilateral Modifications After the Death of the Co-Grantor

Whitehouse v. Gahn, 84 A.D.3d 949  (N.Y. App. Div. 2011)

In a case before the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York, a trust beneficiary appealed a New York Supreme Court decision that declared the trust amendment naming her as sole beneficiary to be void and unenforceable.  The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court ruling and remitted the case for an entry of judgment.

In their lifetimes, the mother and father, as grantors, established an irrevocable trust naming their three children as the beneficiaries of the trust estate, which consisted of the family home.  The trust instrument expressly reserved for the grantors a limited power of appointment to change or alter the remaindermen.  Approximately five months after the father died, the mother executed an amendment to the trust, naming the daughter as its sole beneficiary.  Less than one month after the amendment was executed, the mother died.  The two children who were removed as trust beneficiaries sought a declaratory judgment in the Supreme Court to declare the amendment void and unenforceable.  The court decided in their favor, and the daughter who had been named sole beneficiary appealed the decision.

According to New York case law, a trust instrument is to be construed as written and the grantor’s intent is to be determined solely from the unambiguous language of the trust instrument itself. Mercury Bay Boating Club v. San Diego Yacht Club, 557 N.E.2d 87 (N.Y. App. Ct. 1990); see Matter of Wallens, 877 N.E.2d 960 (N.Y. App. Ct. 2007); Matter of Chase Manhattan Bank, 846 N.E.2d 806 (N.Y. App. Ct. 2006).  The Appellate Division found that the terms of this trust instrument were unambiguous, and clearly expressed the grantors’ intent that their three children share the trust estate equally.  These unambiguous terms may not be altered by a separate provision of the trust which may allow the plural usage of “grantors” to be interpreted as a singular “grantor.”  The Appellate Division held that because the trust agreement allowed an amendment to be made with the joint consent of the grantors, a surviving grantor may not unilaterally amend the trust after the death of the co-grantor.  Therefore, because only the mother executed the amendment to the trust, it was void and unenforceable.

New York law permits a court to amend an irrevocable, unamendable trust if its grantor and all the beneficiaries consent to the amendment.  N.Y.  Estates, Powers and Trusts Law § 7-19.  Because that did not happen in this case, the Appellate Division found further reason to determine that the purported amendment was void and unenforceable.

The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court remitted the matter to the Supreme Court where it originated for entry of judgment declaring that the amendment to the trust was void and unenforceable, and that all three children were beneficiaries of that trust.

Should you have any questions relating to trusts, estate planning or personal asset protection issues, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Susan Maya, at SMaya@Mayalaw.com or 203-221-3100, and Attorney Russell Sweeting, at RSweeting@Mayalaw.com or 203-221-3100, in the Maya Murphy office in Westport, Fairfield County, Connecticut.

Several Different Legal Theories May Allow Creditors To Reach a Debtor’s Assets Held in Trust

In a recent case before the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, the United States government sought to collect delinquent taxes by accessing assets held in a trust established for the benefit of the taxpayer’s children. The current case was remanded to the District Court by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit after the Second Circuit reversed an earlier District Court ruling on the same matter. On remand, the District Court ruled that the government may collect against all assets held by the trust.

Between 1978 and 1982, the taxpayer invested in a series of tax shelters that generated deductions that were later disallowed by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).  In December 1990, after being audited, the taxpayer received notification that he owed over $227,000 in taxes and penalties.  This amount was later corrected.  In January 1992, the taxpayer received a notice of deficiency indicating that he had accrued more than $700,000 in tax liability.  The taxpayer challenged the IRS calculation of his tax liability in a petition to the United States Tax Court.  In November 1992, the Tax Court entered judgment against the taxpayer in the amount of $209,113 in taxes and penalties, and $560,000 in interest.

In June 1992, the taxpayer established a trust, naming a series of family friend and business associates as the trustees and naming his two sons as the beneficiaries.  In the same month, he transferred approximately $220,000 to the trust and in October 1992 he transferred his primary residence, valued at $515,000, to the trust.  The taxpayer received no consideration and there was no evidence the trust assumed the individual taxpayer’s mortgage obligations. Pursuant to the transfer agreement, the taxpayer was allowed to live in the residence and was responsible for the expenses of the residence, including the mortgage and property taxes.  At the time of the transfer, the mortgage was scheduled to be paid off in five years; however, the transfer agreement did not specify an end date for the taxpayer’s occupancy.

At the bench trial held in 2005, the government advanced several theories for recovering assets from the trust, all of which were rejected by the District Court. The government appealed.  In 2008, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the judgment and remanded the case.  In its remand order, the Second Circuit directed the District Court to reconsider its findings with respect to whether the conveyances by the taxpayer to the trust were actually fraudulent, whether the trust held property as the taxpayer’s nominee and whether the trust was the taxpayer’s alter ego.

According to New York law, every conveyance made with “actual intent, as distinguished from intent presumed in law, to hinder, delay or defraud” one’s creditors is fraudulent as to both present and future creditors.  N.Y. Debtor and Creditor Law § 276.  The primary issue is the intent of the debtor in making the conveyance, not the actual financial status of the debtor at the time of the conveyance.  The requisite intent required by this section does not need to be proven by direct evidence; it may be inferred from circumstances surrounding the allegedly fraudulent transfer.  Factors, known as “badges of fraud,” that a court may consider in determining fraudulent intent include: lack or inadequacy of consideration; close relationship between the transferor and the transferee; debtor’s retaining possession, benefit or use of the property; series of transactions after incurring the debt; the transferor’s knowledge of the creditor’s claim and the inability to pay it; the financial condition of the debtor before and after the transfer; and the shifting of assets to a corporation wholly owned by the debtor.  See Steinberg v. Levine, 6 A.D.3d 620 (N.Y. 2004); In re Kaiser, 722 F.2d 1574, 1582–83 (2d Cir.1983) (citations omitted).  To support a fraudulent conveyance finding, the creditor must have suffered some actual harm; however, actual harm may be found if the debtor depletes or diminishes the value of the assets of the debtor’s estate available to the creditors.  Lippe v. Bairnco Corp., 249 F.Supp.2d 357, 375 (S.D.N.Y. 2003)

The District Court found that the taxpayer was well aware of his tax liabilities and other potential demands on his assets when he transferred his residence and $220,000 to the trust in 1992.  Evidence of the taxpayer’s conduct at the time of the transfers supported the court’s finding that the taxpayer acted with the intention to hinder or delay collection of his assets. The taxpayer retained the benefits of ownership of the residence after it was transferred to the trust for no consideration.  His payments of mortgage and other property-related expenses, in lieu of rent, were the type of payments that would be made by a property owner, not a renter.  Much of the taxpayer’s net worth consisted of cash, which he was continually transferring among bank accounts held by family and close associates, as well as withdrawing to hold in an office safe. These transfers and withdrawals made it difficult for the IRS to locate and value the taxpayer’s assets.  The District Court also found that the transfers of cash and real estate to the trust unambiguously caused the requisite actual harm to his creditors by reducing the assets that the taxpayer had available to satisfy his tax debt and reducing the value of his readily accessible assets well below the amount of his tax debt.  After the transfers, the IRS would have had to collect between fifty and ninety percent of his remaining assets to satisfy his tax debt.  As a result of this analysis, the District Court found that the taxpayer’s intent to evade the IRS collection efforts was substantial and sufficient on its own; therefore, the court concluded that the taxpayer’s transfer of the residence and $220,000 to the trusts was actually fraudulent within the definition of New York law.  The remedy for fraudulent conveyance is that the creditor may collect upon the fraudulently conveyed property.  Therefore, the District Court held that the government may collect against the assets in the trust on this basis.

The nominee theory focuses on the relationship between the taxpayer and the property to determine whether a taxpayer has engaged in a legal fiction, for federal tax purposes, by placing legal title to property in the hands of another while, in actuality, retaining all or some of the benefits of being the property’s true owner. Richards v. United States, 231 B.R. 571, 578 (E.D.Pa.1999).  The overall objective of the nominee analysis is to determine whether the debor retained the practical benefits of ownership while transferring legal title.  Id. The critical consideration is whether the taxpayer exercised active or substantial control over the property.  Factors examined by the court include: (1) whether inadequate or no consideration was paid by the nominee; (2) whether the property was placed in the nominee’s name in anticipation of a liability while the transferor remains in control of the property; (3) where there is a close relationship between the nominee and the transferor; (4) whether they failed to record the conveyance; (5) whether the transferor retains possession; and (6) whether the transferor continues to enjoy the benefits of the transferred property.  Giardino v. United States, No. 96–CV–6348T, 1997 WL 1038197, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. Oct.29, 1997).  A nominee finding can be made even where there is no intent to defraud creditors or hinder collection efforts.  Where a nominee relationship is found, the government may access only the property held on the taxpayer’s behalf by the nominee and not all the property of the nominee.

The District Court found that the trust was the taxpayer’s nominee with respect to the residence only, and not with respect to the $220,000. The taxpayer had a close relationship with the trustees and the trust paid no consideration for the transfer of the residence. There was no evidence in the transfer agreement that the trust prevented the taxpayer from benefitting from the use and occupancy of the residence as much as when he held legal title to it.  The District Court found the evidence that the taxpayer made some payments relating to the property to be insufficient evidence to rebut the inference that he was the de facto owner of the property.  The payments that the taxpayer made in exchange for his occupancy were precisely those that an owner would make.  Once the mortgage was paid off, the taxpayer was only responsible for upkeep and expenses for the property; therefore, the trust received no net return from this asset.  The District Court considered that, were the trust acting as the owner of the property, it would have sought market rental rates that would have exceeded the taxpayer’s payments.  Therefore, the District Court found that the trust held the residence as the taxpayer’s nominee and that the government could recover the taxpayer’s debts against the residence under a nominee theory.

The alter ego theory differs from the nominee theory because the nominee theory focuses on the taxpayer’s control over and benefit from the actual property, while the alter ego theory emphasizes the taxpayer’s control over the entity that holds the property.  The alter ego doctrine arose from the law of corporations and allows the creditor to disregard the corporate form (also known as “piercing the corporate veil”) by either using an individual owner’s assets to satisfy a corporation’s debts or using the corporation’s assets to satisfy the individual owner’s debts.  Although the New York Court of Appeals has never held that the alter ego theory may be applied to reach assets held in trust, the District Court found no policy reason not to extend the application of veil piercing to trusts.  The policy behind piercing the corporate veil is to prevent a debtor from using the corporate form to unjustly avoid liability, which applies equally to trusts.  Therefore, the District Court held that the alter ego theory could be applied to the trust in the instant case.

To pierce the corporate veil in New York, a plaintiff must show that “(1) the owner exercised such control that the corporation has become a mere instrumentality of the owner, who is the real actor; (2) the owner used this control to commit a fraud or ‘other wrong’; and (3) the fraud or wrong results in an unjust loss or injury to the plaintiff.” Babitt v. Vebeliunas,332 F.3d 85, 91–92 (2d Cir.2003) (citations omitted); see also Wm. Passalacqua Builders, Inc. v. Resnick Developers S. Inc., 933 F.2d 131, 138 (2d Cir.1991).  With respect to analyzing the taxpayer’s control over the trust, the relevant factors can be drawn by analogy from the corporate context.  In analyzing the alter ego question as it relates to a corporation, courts consider factors such as the absence of formalities, the amount of business discretion displayed by the allegedly dominated corporation, whether the related corporations deal with the dominated corporation at arm’s length and whether the corporation in question had property that was used by other of the corporations as if it were its own. Vebeliunas,332 F.3d  at 91 n.3 (citation omitted).

The District Court that the trust was an alter ego of the taxpayer.  The trust formalities were so poorly observed as to give rise to the inference that the trust was not a bona fide independent entity. Between 1992 and 1998, the trust did not record the taxpayer’s payment of expenses for the residence as income and, during this period, the trust did not claim the mortgage interest deduction for the residence.  The individual taxpayer remained as the named beneficiary of the flood and fire insurance policies of the residence.  The accounting work for the trust was performed by a business associate of the taxpayer as a professional courtesy.  The trust tax statements were sent directly to the taxpayer instead of to the trustees. The District Court also found that the manner in which the trust was managed also demonstrate that it was an extension of the taxpayer because there was little evidence that the trustees were actively involved in managing the trust or its assets.  Having trustees play an active role in managing the trust is an important factor in deciding whether to respect the form of a trust because active involvement of trustees would support the separate existence of a trust. Dean v. United States, 987 F.Supp. 1160, 1165 (W.D.Mo.1997).  Finally, the taxpayer demonstrated his domination of the trust by controlling its property to a high degree.

Once the District Court found that the taxpayer controlled the trust, the next steps were to determine whether he used that control to commit a fraud or a wrong against the government, in its capacity as a creditor, and whether that wrong resulted in an unjust loss.  The court found these elements to be plainly satisfied by the facts and its previous findings with respect to actual fraudulent conveyance and the nominee doctrine.  Therefore, the District Court concluded that the existence of the trust as a separate entity was a legal fiction. Under the alter ego theory, the government may collect against all assets held by the trust as if they were held by the taxpayer himself.

Therefore, the District Court held that the government may proceed to collect against all the assets held by the trust that the taxpayer established for benefit of his sons in order to satisfy his delinquent tax liabilities.

Should you have any questions relating to trusts and other personal asset protection issues, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Susan Maya, at SMaya@Mayalaw.com or 203-221-3100, and Attorney Russell Sweeting, at RSweeting@Mayalaw.com or 203-221-3100, in the Maya Murphy office in Westport, Fairfield County, Connecticut.

United States v. Evseroff, 00-CV-06029 KAM, 2012 WL 1514860 (E.D.N.Y. Apr. 30, 2012)

Trustees May Be Liable in their Own Person and Estate for Failure to Comply with IRS Notices of Levy Issued against Trust Beneficiaries

In a recent case before the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, the United States government commenced an action against a trustee in order to collect unpaid federal taxes owed by the trust beneficiary. The District Court granted the government’s summary judgment motion and found the trustee liable for unpaid federal taxes plus interest.

In 1995, the beneficiary’s mother died.  Pursuant to her will, the majority of her estate was left to be held in trust, and administered, managed, invested and reinvested by the trustee as set forth in the will.  The relevant provision of the will directed the trustee to pay her son, the sole beneficiary of the trust, at least $1,000 per month, but not more than 60-percent of the net income of the trust.  The same provision also provided the trustee with sole discretion to pay trust principal to her son as necessary for the comfortable “maintenance, support, health, education and well being” of her son, and his two sons.  In February 1996, the trustee was issued letters of trusteeship for the trust created by the will.

In April 1996, the trustee was informed by his attorney by letter that the son owed the federal government for various taxes totaling $246,579.  The attorney additionally informed the trustee that whatever income was going to the son, regardless of the source, must go first to the creditor.  In June 1996, the trustee was served with an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Notice of Levy and Notice of Federal Tax Lien. The Notice of Levy listed federal income tax liabilities and civil penalties that the son owed to the IRS for tax years 1979 through 1989.  The notice further stated that the levy required the trustee to turn over to the IRS “this person’s property and rights to property (such as money, credits and bank deposits) that you have or which you are already obligated to pay this person.”  In either 2000 or 2001, the trustee was directed by his new attorney to make distributions from the trust to the son because the IRS had been satisfied.  The trustee did not see the paperwork documenting satisfaction of the IRS levy and signed blank checks to permit the attorney to draw on the trust account for the son.  The government then commenced action against the trustee to collect the son’s delinquent tax liability through the judicial enforcement of the IRS levy.

The IRS has two principal tools to collect delinquent taxes.  The first is a lien foreclosure suit, brought pursuant to 26 U.S.C. § 7403(a).  The other is the issuance of a levy upon all property and rights to property belonging to the delinquent taxpayer, pursuant to 26 U.S.C. § 6331(a).  Where the taxpayer’s property is being held by another, the notice of levy is customarily served upon the custodian of the property pursuant to 26 U.S.C. § 6332(a).  Serving the notice on the custodian creates a custodial relationship between the person holding the property and the IRS so that the property comes into constructive possession of the government.  If the custodian fails or refuses to surrender the property or rights to property subject to the levy, the custodian becomes liable in his own person and estate to the government in the sum equal to the value of what he failed to surrender.  26 U.S.C. § 6332(d)(1).

Pursuant to New York law, the plain language of the trust instrument must be analyzed in order to determine a trust beneficiary’s property rights in trust income or principal.  The Second Circuit has held that a beneficiary has a property interest in trust income when the trust instrument sets out the trustee’s duty to pay income in mandatory terms.  Magavern v. United States, 550 F.2d 797, 801 (2d Cir.1977).  Therefore, when the trustee is required to make a payment of trust income to a beneficiary, even when the amount and timing of the mandatory income distribution are left to the trustee’s discretion, the trust beneficiary has a property right in trust income that is subject to a tax levy.

In the instant case, because the trustee’s duty pay out a certain amount of trust income was set forth in mandatory terms, the beneficiary had a right to property in the trust income, and the government tax levy could attach to this right.  However, the will did not require the trustee to pay trust principal to the beneficiary.  The terms of the trust left decisions with respect to the trust principal entirely to the trustee’s discretion.  Therefore, the beneficiary had no attachable right to property in the trust principal until the trustee decided to make a distribution of such principal to him.  The District Court concluded that the beneficiary had some property rights to both the trust income and that portion of the trust principal, if any, that was distributed to him.  These rights to property were in the possession of the trustee, and it was undisputed under the facts of the case that the trustee did not surrender any levied property to the IRS in compliance with 26 U.S.C. § 6332(a).  Therefore, the trustee could be liable in his own person and estate to the government under 26 U.S.C. § 6332(d)(1).

A custodian of property or rights to property that are subject to an IRS levy has only two defenses to avoid liability in his own person and estate.  The first available defense is that the trustee is neither in possession of nor obligated with respect to the property or rights to property belonging to the delinquent taxpayer.  26 U.S.C. § 6332(a).  The second available defense is that the taxpayer’s property or rights to property at issue are subject to attachment or execution under a judicial process.  Id. In the instant case, the first defense was not applicable because, pursuant to the terms of the will, the trustee was both obligated to pay the beneficiary certain amounts of trust income at given intervals and empowered to make discretionary distributions.  The trustee made no suggestion that the second defense was applicable. The absence of intentional or negligent conduct is not relevant as to whether an enforcement action may be maintained against the custodian; therefore, good faith could not absolve the trustee of liability for his failure to comply with his statutory obligations to surrender property pursuant to a valid IRS Notice of Levy.  Therefore, the District Court found that the trustee could not avoid liability for his actions under either of the two statutorily available defenses.

The District Court determined that the government established as a matter of law that the trustee failed to honor the Notice of Levy served on the trust beneficiary in June 1996 by improperly distributing estate assets to the trust beneficiary after the date of the levy.  However, the court also held that the trustee was liable for less than the judgment amount requested by the government, but the court permitted the government to submit a supplemental briefing as to its entitlement to additional estate money to which the trust beneficiary had a property right.

Should you have any questions relating to trusts or other personal asset protection issues, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Susan Maya, at SMaya@Mayalaw.com or 203-221-3100, and Attorney Russell Sweeting, at RSweeting@Mayalaw.com or 203-221-3100, in the Maya Murphy office in Westport, Fairfield County, Connecticut.

United States v. Michel, 08 CV 1313 DRH WDW, 2012 WL 3011124 (E.D.N.Y. July 23, 2012)

Deliberate Indifference Required for School to be Liable under Title IX for Student-Student Harassment

In a New York District decision earlier this year, a student’s cause of action under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act against the Monroe-Woodbury School District was denied because it did not show deliberate indifference in response to the student’s claim of student-to-student sexual harassment.[1]

Parents on behalf of their fifteen year old daughter brought suit against Monroe–Woodbury Central School District pursuant to Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging that she was deprived of an educational environment free from sexual harassment as required by federal law.

Beginning in January 2010, when she was in the eighth grade, the student was subjected to teasing, taunting, and physical bullying by other students, which she reported to her guidance counselor.  She was sexually assaulted by a male classmate who requested a handjob and subsequently ran her  hands over the genital area of his pants and attempted to shove her hands down his pants.[2] As a result of the incident, the student alleges that she was subjected to more taunting and name-calling by other students and in response began to engage in self- injurious behavior by cutting herself. When she began attending Monroe–Woodbury High School in September, another student and friend of the first continued to harass her and in November sexually assaulted her by pinning her against a locker and pushing his hands down her pants and blouse, touching her genital area and breast.[3]  The student began missing school frequently to avoid continued harassment.  At some point she confided in her guidance counselor that her absenteeism and self-injurious behavior was the result of the persistent teasing and the two incidents of sexual assault by her classmates.[4]

The School District recommended that she attend the GO Program, an out-of-district academic program, to which her parents agreed. After her first day there, CF reported to her parents that she was uncomfortable with this placement because the students there were “in many cases, not attending their regular high schools due to serious disciplinary records and incidents.”[5] When her parents again met with the principal, they requested that their daughter be transferred to another public school to continue her high school education.  The principal refused saying there were no other options besides the GO program.[6]

The parent brought suit alleging the school failed to: (1) initiate an investigation upon the parents’ verbal complaint; (2) conduct a prompt, equitable, and thorough investigation of the charges; (3) ensure that immediate corrective action be taken, including subjecting the offending individuals to appropriate disciplinary measures; and (4) inform CF of her right to pursue legal remedies.

Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that “[n]o person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a)[7]. Title IX contains an implied private right of action for plaintiffs who bring suit against educational institutions that receive federal funding, and liability may be imposed upon a school district if it is found to be in violation of this law.

Title IX funding recipients may be held liable for student-on-student harassment if the plaintiff can establish damages only where the school district: (1) was deliberately indifferent; (2) to sexual harassment; (3) of which it had actual knowledge; (4) that was so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it deprived the victim of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school.[8] A showing of deliberate indifference requires that the school had actual knowledge of the sexual harassment and either responded in a “clearly unreasonable manner in light of the known circumstances,”[9] or responded with remedial action only after a “lengthy and unjustified delay.”[10]

The Court rejected the plaintiff’s assertions that the GO Program was an “inappropriate” placement for her because it did not provide her with a “regular high school environment.” Saying even if it was inappropriate, “Title IX simply does not require recipient school districts to provide students with a ‘regular high school environment.’ Title IX does not prescribe any particular educational experience at all. Rather, Title IX merely prohibits schools from excluding anyone, on the basis of sex, from participating in an educational program that receives federal assistance; or denying the benefits of such programs on the basis of sex; or subjecting anyone in such programs to discrimination on the basis of sex.”[11]  Finding that the school did not cause the discrimination and the School District took some remedial action (not clearly unreasonable under the circumstances) in response to the student’s complaints, the Court dismissed the action.

Bullying and harassment in school should never be tolerated.  The lawyers at Maya Murphy, P.C., are experienced and knowledgeable education law practitioners and assist clients in New York, Bridgeport, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, Westport, and elsewhere in Fairfield County. Should you have any questions about bullying, student harassment, school liability or any other matter, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut, by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.


[1] KF ex rel. CF v. Monroe Woodbury Cent. Sch. Dist., 12 CIV. 2200 ER, 2013 WL 177911 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 16, 2013)

[2] Compl.¶¶ 10-11

[3] Compl.¶¶ 12-13

[4] Id.

[5] Compl.¶¶ 14

[6] Id.

[7] Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a)

[8] Williams v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. Sys. of Georgia, 477 F.3d 1282, 1293 (11th Cir.2007)

[10] Hayut v. State Univ. of N.Y., 352 F.3d 733, 751 (2d Cir.2003)

[11] KF ex rel. CF v. Monroe Woodbury Cent. Sch. Dist.

 

Hurdles Employees Must Jump in Filing a Claim for Unlawful Discrimination

Here in Connecticut and across the nation, employees from all walks of life routinely face unlawful discriminatory practices and treatment in the workplace. Depending on the nature of the claim, he or she may file civil lawsuits under Title VII (which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin) or the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (CFEPA).

However, employees need to keep in mind that before they seek recourse with the courts, they must first exhaust all of their administrative remedies. “The exhaustion requirement exists to afford the administrative agency the opportunity to investigate, mediate, and take remedial action.”[1] Failure to do so will result in dismissal of the case (see, for example, this previously-discussed case).

Furthermore, employees must pay attention to statutory time restrictions for filing administrative charges under Title VII and CFEPA:

To sustain a claim for unlawful discrimination under Title VII in a deferral state such as Connecticut, a plaintiff must file administrative charges with the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunities Commission] within 300 days of the alleged discriminatory acts.[2] … CFEPA requires that a complainant file the administrative charge with the CCHRO [Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities] within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act.[3]

Courts are particularly cognizant of these requirements and endorse “strict adherence… [as] the best guarantee of the evenhanded administration of the law.”[4] As a result, the time bar will begin running for each individual adverse employment action against the employee on the date it occurred. Failure to timely file a claim may prevent it from being reviewed by the EEOC or CCHRO.

However, employees often endure discriminatory practices over a prolonged period of time, so even if alleged conduct falls outside of the charging period, it may be reviewable. An important exception to strict adherence is the continuing violation exception, which involves incidents occurring both within and outside the time bar. A continuing violation occurs “where there is proof of specific ongoing discriminatory policies or practices, or where specific and related instances of discrimination are permitted by the employer to continue unremedied for so long as to amount to a discriminatory policy or practice.”[5]

As an employee, it is imperative that you understand Connecticut’s statutory scheme surrounding hiring, evaluation, and termination processes, as well as the requirements for filing a lawsuit under State and federal anti-discrimination law. The attorneys at Maya Murphy, P.C., assist clients in Bridgeport, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, and Westport. If you have any questions regarding any employment law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.


[1] Stewart v. United States Immigration and Naturalization Service, 762 F.2d 193, 198 (2d. Cir. 1985).

[2] Flaherty v. Metromail Corp., 235 F.3d 133, 136 n.1 (2d Cir. 2000).

[3] Connecticut General Statutes § 46a-82e.

[4] Mohasco Corp. v. Silver, 447 U.S. 807, 826 (1980).

[5] Cornwell v. Robinson, 23 F.3d 694, 704 (2d Cir. 1994).

Did Basketball Powerhouse Force Coach to Resign Due to Her Disability?

Most people who have lived for some period of time here in Connecticut are amply familiar with the Lady Huskies and Lady Vols fierce decade-long rivalry. Before regular season matches discontinued five years ago, these games were the highlight of the season. Thus, fans have come to form a love-hate relationship with Pat Summitt, Head Coach of the Lady Vols who has the most wins of any (both male and female) NCAA basketball coach. It came as a shock to hear on April 18, 2012, after thirty-eight years of coaching, Summitt would be retiring from her post after being diagnosed with early-onset dementia-Alzheimer’s disease just before the start of the 2011-2012 season.[1] “I’ve loved being the head coach at Tennessee for 38 years, but I recognize that the time has come to move into the future and to step into a new role,” explained Summitt.[2]

As it turns out, the decision may not have been entirely that of Summitt.

In a recently released affidavit,[3] Summitt revealed that on March 14, 2012, she met with the University of Tennessee (UT) Athletics Director David Hart, who informed her that she would no longer be the coaching the Lady Vols. Summitt further explained:

This was very surprising to me and very hurtful as that was a decision I would have liked to have made on my own at the end of the season after consulting with my family, doctors, colleagues, and friends and not be told this by Mr. Hart. I felt this was wrong.[4]

UT spokeswoman Margie Nichols denied allegations that Summitt was forced out of her position. “It’s absolutely not true… It was Pat’s idea to become the head coach emeritus. I think she made that really clear at her press conference earlier this year.”[5] Regardless, this leaves many asking: was Summitt forced to resign because of her disability?

Under Connecticut law, employees enjoy a very comprehensive statutory scheme (found here) prohibiting discriminatory practices in the workplace. Unless the employer and its agents (such as administration or management) have a “bona fide occupational qualification or need,” it is a violation of the General Statutes:

To refuse to hire or employ or to bar or to discharge from employment any individual or to discriminate against such individual in compensation or in terms, conditions or privileges of employment because of the individual’s race, color, religious creed, age, sex, marital status, national origin, ancestry, present or past history of mental disability, mental retardation, learning disability or physical disability, including, but not limited to, blindness.[6]

In addition, employees enjoy federal protection of their rights through such legislation as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Family Medical Leave Act, to name just a few.

Discrimination on the basis of disability or another protected class is unfortunately a common occurrence in the workplace, but its prevalence in no way makes it lawful. If you are a teacher, coach, or any employee and you find yourself being the target of adverse employment action on any of the above bases, it is imperative that you consult an experienced and knowledgeable school or employment law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding employment discrimination or other education law or employment law matters, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.


[1] “Pat Summitt’s Early-Onset Dementia: Lady Vols Coach Resigns Less Than A Year After Diagnosis.” Published April 18, 2012. Accessed October 5, 2012: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/18/pat-summitt-dementia-early-onset-alzheimers-memory_n_1435380.html

[2] Id.

[3] “Affidavit of Coach Pat Head Summitt.” Accessed October 5, 2012: http://www.documentcloud.org/documents/452632-pat-summitts-affidavit.html

[4] Id.

[5] “Pat Summitt Affidavit: Ex-Tennessee Coach Initially Felt Forced Out Of Job Over Early-Onset Dementia,” by Steve Megargee. Published October 3, 2012. Accessed October 5, 2012: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/04/pat-summitt-affidavit-tennessee-coach-job_n_1937730.html

[6] Connecticut General Statutes § 46a-60(a). Accessed October 5, 2012: http://www.cga.ct.gov/current/pub/chap814c.htm#Sec46a-60.htm

NEW LAWS IMPACTING CONNECTICUT EMPLOYERS – WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

SEPTEMBER 20 @ 1:00 PM – 2:30 PM

Lauren A. Jacobson, Esq. and Robert G. Brody, Esq. will be presenting “New Laws Impacting Connecticut Employers – What you Need to Know” for the Fairfield County Bar Association.

About the Program 

The Connecticut General Assembly recently enacted a number of significant employment laws at the end of its recent regular and special sessions that will dramatically affect our state. This program will highlight the most prominent legislation passed, and provide important updates on what employers need to know. Topics will include, among others:

  • Mandatory Salary Range Disclosure for Applicants and Employees
  • New Sex Wage Discrimination Standard: Moving from “Equal” to “Comparable” Work
  • Covid Recall-by-Seniority Law for Certain Employees Laid Off in the Hotel, Food Service and Building Service Industries
  • New Workplace Rules for Regulating Recreational Marijuana
  • New Breastfeeding Guidelines
  • The CROWN ACT- “Creating A Respectful And Open World For Natural Hair” – Protection Again Discrimination Based on Race-Based Hair Styles

Click here to register. 

Secretary Sues Board of Ed for Racial Discrimination

A Bronx school employee is suing the Board of Education for $100 million for employment discrimination – saying she was denied a transfer, even though officials knew she was being harassed by her boss. Continue Reading

Dennis Coleman’s Bad Behavior Costs Board of ED $100G

The city’s Board of Education settled a discrimination and retaliation lawsuit brought by a former Bronx School Board employee last week for $100,000. Continue Reading

Is a Bonus a ‘Wage’?: Not According to a Recent Connecticut Supreme Court Decision

Is a Bonus a ‘Wage’?:  Not According to a Recent Connecticut Supreme Court Decision

Are you currently employed in Connecticut and have been promised a year-end bonus or had been promised a year-end bonus and never received it?   A recent Connecticut Supreme Court decision may affect the amount of protection you are afforded under Connecticut law if your employer defaults or has defaulted on that promise.

This recent case addressed the question of whether a year-end bonus promised by an employer is considered a ‘wage’ for the purposes of the Connecticut Wage Act.  Answering that question in the negative, the Supreme Court denied a Connecticut employee the ability to proceed with a wrongful withholding of wages claim that he had initially pursued after his employer failed to pay out what the employee had thought to be a promised year-end bonus.

Under this decided Supreme Court case, the amount of liability your employer will face for failing to pay out a promised year-end bonus will hinge upon how your employer defined the conditions under which a bonus would be paid.  If the conditions are specific goals set for you as an individual employee (e.g. a certain number of billable hours need to be reached), then under the Connecticut Wage Act your employer will be required to pay out that bonus as wages in accordance with their promise.  If they do not, you are afforded the protections of the Wage Act and can bring an action against your employer for wrongfully withholding wages.  If successful, it is possible that you could receive, by way of damages, twice the full amount of your bonus and any attorney fees incurred in pursuing the action.  In addition, due to the serious nature of such an offense, your employer could potentially be fined and/or imprisoned for their actions.

Unfortunately, however, if your employer was more ambiguous about the requisite conditions for a bonus, under this new case law, it is likely that they will be able to avoid liability for wrongfully withholding your wages.  If that is the case, while you can still pursue other causes of action against your employer, you will not be able to receive twice the full amount of your bonus or attorney fees.

The events of this recently decided case unfolded as follows:   At the beginning of the employment relationship between an employee and a Connecticut law firm, the parties agreed that the employee’s annual compensation would consist of a base salary and a year-end bonus.  The employment contract called for this year-end bonus to be based on factors such as seniority, business generation, productivity, professional ability, pro bono work, and loyalty to the firm.  The employee remained at the firm for several years and each year he received his salary and the promised year-end bonus.  When the employee left the firm he discovered that he was not going to receive the year-end bonus for that last year of his employment.  To try and recover what he had thought was a promised bonus; the employee commenced an action against his employer alleging breach of contract and wrongful withholding of wages.

The trial court dismissed the wrongful withholding of wages claim, determining that the year-end bonus was not ‘wages’ as defined by the Connecticut Wage Act.  The breach of contract claim, however, went to trial.  The Trial Court found in favor of the employee and awarded him damages in the amount of his year-end bonus plus interest.  On appeal, the Appellate Court upheld the Trial Court’s finding as to the breach of contract claim but reversed the Trial Court’s decision to dismiss the wrongful withholdings of wages claim.  The Appellate Court determined that the structure of the agreement as to the year-end bonus meant that the bonus could have been classified as ‘wages’ under the Connecticut Wage Act and therefore held that the employee could proceed with his wrongful withholding of wages claim.

The issue of the wrongful withholdings of wages claim was appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court where the Court decided that because the employee’s bonus was discretionary, (not ascertainable by applying a formula) it did not constitute ‘wages’ under the Connecticut Wage Act.  The employee, therefore, was not able to proceed with his wrongful withholding of wages claim.

Although the employee did recover some monetary damages through his breach of contract claim, it was not anywhere near as much as he would have received if he had been able to proceed with his wrongful withholding of wages action.

It is quite possible that after the release of this opinion many employers will revisit their bonus policies to make the language a little less precise or announce that their bonuses are discretionary in order to take advantage of the protections afforded under this recent case.  It is important, therefore, that as an employee you are aware of what kind of bonus you have been promised so that you know how strongly to rely on that promised bonus and what options are available to you if the employer refuses to pay.

If you have already been denied your year-end bonus and believe that it was a discretionary bonus, there are still ways in which you can potentially recover that lost income, such as the breach of contract claim pursued by the employee in this recent case.  If you have been denied a year-end bonus that was not discretionary and you had met the required conditions for receiving that bonus, you are still protected under the Connecticut Wage Act and can bring a wrongful withholding of wages action against your employer.  This action may allow you to receive damages in the amount double your bonus and possibly receive any incurred attorney fees.

If you have any questions regarding employment and labor law in Connecticut, please contact Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He can be reached at (203) 221-3100 or via e-mail at JMaya@Mayalaw.com. Mr. Maya handles cases involving employment contracts, separation agreements, non-competition agreements, restrictive covenants, union arbitrations, and employment discrimination cases in New York and Connecticut.

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