Tompkins County Trust Company v. D. Bob Gowin et al.,
621 N.Y.S.2d 476 (N.Y. 12/08/1994)
SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, TOMPKINS COUNTY
Index No. 94-1006, RJI No. 94-0628-M
1994.NY.56973; 621 N.Y.S.2d 476; 163 Misc. 2d 418
decided: December 8, 1994.
TOMPKINS COUNTY TRUST COMPANY, PLAINTIFF
D. BOB GOWIN, TEACHERS INSURANCE AND ANNUITY ASSOCIATION AND COLLEGE
RETIREMENT EQUITIES FUND, DEFENDANTS
Harris, Beach, & Wilcox, Mark Wheeler, Esq., of counsel for plaintiff, Ithaca, NY.
Charles Guttman, Esq., of counsel for defendant Gowin, Ithaca, NY.
Hinman, Howard & Kattell, Albert J. Millus, Jr., Esq., of counsel for defendant Teachers
Insurance & Annuity Assoc. & College Retirement Equities Fund, Binghamton, NY.
Walter J. Relihan, Jr., Justice
Author: Relihan, Jr.
Walter J. Relihan, Jr., J.
The plaintiff-bank, following a default, foreclosed the mortgage of the defendant Gowin.
Thereafter, the bank moved for a deficiency judgment (RPAPL section 1371). Three days prior to
trial, Gowin transferred $100,000 from a personal investment account in a brokerage firm to his
CREF retirement fund.
The transfer, of course, was without consideration and occurred during the pendency of an action
to collect a debt owing by Gowin to the plaintiff. As a result of that transfer, the deficiency
judgment remains wholly unpaid. These facts are not contested. Accordingly, the transfer was
fraudulent under New York law (Debtor & Creditor Law, sections 273, 273-a, 274).
The Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association and the College Retirement Equities Fund
(hereafter "TIAA" and "CREF") are New York not-for-profit corporations which provide retirement
insurance and annuities to members who are current or retired employees of colleges, universities
and related organizations. Their purposes are to provide for the diversified investment of
contributions by employers and employees, which are deposited with TIAA/CREF during the years of
employment, and to pay benefits during the years of retirement based upon such accumulated
contributions (Laws of 1952, ch 124, section 2).
State law provides that no benefit provided by CREF shall be liable to attachment, garnishment or
other process in order to pay any debt or liability of a retirement fund beneficiary (Section 9
of Chapter 124). Similarly, federal law provides that no plan benefit may be alienated (Employee
Retirement Income Security Act, hereafter "ERISA", 29 U.S. Code, section 1056[d] [l]).
CPLR 5205 exempts certain assets, held in trust, from the normal remedies available to creditors
seeking to enforce money judgments. However, that exemption is unavailable where the asset is
transferred within 90 days before the commencement of the action upon which the judgment is
entered. It is also unavailable where the transfer is deemed fraudulent under the Debtor and
Creditor Law. Here, both predicates for the loss of the exemption are present.
Nevertheless, TIAA/CREF argues that the generally governing provisions of CPLR 5205(c) (5) are
not applicable to CREF because a more specific New York statute (Laws of 1952, ch 124) exempts
the debtors $100,000 transfer. Moreover, the corporations contend, the federal anti-alienation
provisions of ERISA preempt any state law to the contrary.
We first examine the question of federal law: The ERISA exemption has been the subject of two
recent decisions by the United States Supreme Court. The first, Guidry v. Sheet Metal Pension
Fund, 493 U.S. 365, 107 L. Ed. 2d 782, 110 S. Ct. 680, disapproved the judicial creation of
generalized equitable exceptions to ERISA's prohibition on the alienation of pension benefits,
even where employee misconduct or malfeasance may have been involved. The second, Patterson v.
Shumate, 119 L. Ed. 2d 519, 504 U.S. , 112 S Ct 2242, reiterated the Court's position that the
creation of equitable exceptions to the ERISA anti-alienation provision must be left to the
These decisions raise questions about the continued reliability of the rationale adopted by our
New York Court of Appeals in Planned Consumer Marketing, Inc. v. Coats and Clark, Inc., 71 N.Y.2d
442, 527 N.Y.S.2d 185, 522 N.E.2d 30. There, the Court held that ERISA does not preempt state
laws enacted to prevent fraudulent transfers, provided the state legislation does not purport to
regulate the operation of employee benefit plans subject to ERISA. However, the holdings in
Guidrey and Patterson, supra, suggest that, where ERISA governs the transfer, the anti-alienation
clause of that statute preempts state equitable exceptions, even though the state exemption does
not affect the actual management or operation of the retirement fund.
The decisive question, therefore, is whether the Gowin transfer falls within the scope of ERISA.
Both TIAA and CREF accept contributions, during the course of the member's employment, in order
to form a principal upon which benefits are calculated and disbursed after retirement. Here, the
transfer by the debtor to CREF occurred well after the debtor's retirement. Accordingly, the
deposit was not the kind of installment payment which ERISA was designed to protect and which
CREF was created to accept and invest. The $100,000 transferred to CREF by the debtor was a non-
plan deposit which could be recalled by the depositor at will. In effect, CREF simply accepted a
sum of money on terms similar to those Gowin might have obtained from any money manager.
ERISA was enacted to assure that vested benefits accrued during employment will remain inviolate
in the absence of any equitable exception created by Congress (Patterson v. Shumate, 112 S. Ct.
2242 at 2249). The recapture of the debtor's non-plan and post-retirement transfer to CREF could
have no adverse effect upon the fund accumulated during the years of employment or the benefits
payable after retirement because of that accumulation. We conclude that, under these
circumstances, the Gowin fraudulent transfer falls outside the scope of ERISA and, therefore,
that the holdings of the U.S. Supreme Court in Guidrey and Patterson, supra, do not govern.
The resolution of the remaining issues turn upon state law and state policy. The considerations
which produced the ruling in Planned Consumer Marketing, Inc. apply with equal force to the case
at bar. In both, the rights of a defrauded creditor must be weighed against the interests of a
retirement plan beneficiary. In both, the facts compel the conclusion that the transfer was
designed to defeat the creditor's rights by fraud. Here, however, Gowin does not occupy the
preferred status of a worker engaged in the building of a retirement corpus which, arguably,
society has an interest in preserving in order to protect the beneficiary in old age.
Clearly, the New York Court of Appeals has the last word on matters of New York law, including
the interpretation of New York statutes. Absent countervailing federal law considerations, we are
persuaded that the Court of Appeals would follow the Planned Consumer Marketing Inc. logic, as
applied to the ERISA anti-alienation clause, in respect to the nearly identical anti-alienation
provisions of the New York statute (Laws of 1952, chapter 124, section 9).
Consequently, the relief sought by Tompkins County Trust Company against TIAA/REF must be
granted. The separate motion against Gowin is denied on grounds of mootness.
WALTER J. RELIHAN, JR.