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St. Clare’s Pensioners Lawsuit Advances Ongoing Legal Battle

Attorney Victoria Esposito and Albany Law Professor David Pratt on the steps of the Schenectady County Judicial Building.
WAMC photo by Dave Lucas via Periscope
Attorney Victoria Esposito and Albany Law Professor David Pratt on the steps of the Schenectady County Judicial Building.

Former St. Clare's Hospital employees whose retirement plans have been thrown into chaos assembled Tuesday on the steps of the Schenectady County Judicial Building as attorneys filed a lawsuit over their lost pensions.

The Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York announced the suit. Victoria Esposito is an attorney working the case pro bono.   "One of our defendants is the Diocese of Albany. And our hope is that the court will find that the diocese did indeed and does indeed control the corporation such that it will be held liable. Once we have that decision in hand, that's one argument that the rest of the people will not have to make, that piece of the puzzle is taken care of."

Defendants named in the suit also include Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, Bishop Emeritus Howard Hubbard and Joseph Pofit, president of the board of St. Clare’s Corporation.

Albany Law School Professor David Pratt:  "We expect the defendants to be represented vigorously, so it's going to be a battle. But we do believe very strongly that we have the rights on our side. They were made promises over and over and over again, they were lied to over and over and over again."

In March, the St. Clare's Corporation petitioned the state Supreme Court to dissolve, claiming it had run out of money to distribute to some 1,100 pensioners. The Pension fund was decimated in the 2008 recession. St. Clare's was absorbed by Ellis Hospital around that time. New York state did pay St. Clare's $58 million to cover transition costs including $28.5 million to cover the pension fund's anticipated needs. But a move to drop federal pension insurance protection in the 1990s doomed the fund.

Mary Hartshorne co-chairs the St. Claire’s Pensioner’s Committee:   "For us to be treated like this is a shame and we have begged for answers from the diocese, from Mr. Pofit, from other trustees, and we've been ignored. The governor? Forget it. He hasn't said anything."

New York Attorney General Letitia James' office sent an email published in The Daily Gazette, James writing in part “...we are determined to get to the bottom of how this happened and to support the recovery of benefits rightfully owed to these hardworking retirees.”

Other than “restitution,” the lawsuit does not list a specific dollar amount.

A Cuomo spokesman recently said the office supports James’ investigation. 

A spokesperson for Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany responded to a request for comment via email, saying "We have not yet seen the lawsuit, so we can't comment on it. However, we respect the rights of pensioners to do what they feel is necessary to secure recovery of their lost benefits. Bishop Scharfenberger, as a board member, wants to do whatever he can to assist that effort. As we've said previously, the Diocese of Albany never managed the St. Clare’s pension fund. St. Clare’s is a separate corporation; its pension was managed by the corporation, not by the diocese."

Republican State Senator Jim Tedisco of Glenville showed up near the end of the press conference, apparently holding a card of hope he has yet to play.  "I do believe there are some documents out there that do not say anything about an agreement of $28 million being enough money to cover the pension fund for the pensioners of St. Clare's hospital. I believe there is documentation for that. And I'm gonna get that documentation one way or another."

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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