For reversal -- Chief Justice Vanderbilt, and Justices Burling, Jacobs and Brennan. For affirmance -- Justices Heher and Oliphant. The opinion of the court was delivered by Jacobs, J.
This is an appeal under R.R. 4:88-8 from a decision by the Commissioner of Labor and Industry which affirmed a ruling that the plaintiff was liable for the payment of contributions to the State Disability Insurance Fund for the year 1949 in the sum of $1,538.42 plus interest. While the appeal was pending in the Appellate Division we certified it under R.R. 1:10-1.
On October 27, 1948 the plaintiff applied for approval of its then existing plan for insurance benefits to its employees in lieu of the State of New Jersey coverage under the Temporary Disability Benefits Law. Thereafter the plan was approved and in view thereof the plaintiff entertained the belief that it was under no obligation to pay any contributions to the Temporary Disability Benefits Fund for the calendar year 1949. However, the plan did not actually cover all of the company's employees and, as a result, the plaintiff owed contributions for 1949; the contributions became due on January 31, 1950 but they were never paid. On February 3, 1954 the Division of Employment Security first advised the plaintiff that since its original plan covered
only members of the Federation of Dyers, Finishers, Printers and Bleachers of America after a qualifying 30 days of employment, there were contributions due on 1949 wages paid to non-covered employees and on 1949 wages paid to members of the Federation during the first 30 days of employment. On May 5, 1954 the Division issued its notice and demand for payment of a deficiency assessment in the sum of $1,538.42 plus interest. Pursuant to the plaintiff's petition an administrative hearing was held and on March 7, 1955 the Director of the Division of Employment Security sustained the assessment; on further administrative review the Director's decision was approved by the Commissioner of Labor and Industry on September 22, 1955. Notice of Appeal to the Appellate Division was duly filed by the plaintiff on October 17, 1955.
The facts on appeal have been stipulated and the only legal issue presented by the parties is whether the Division's claim against the plaintiff has been barred by any pertinent statute of limitations. It is admitted that the plaintiff's contributions became due on January 31, 1950 but were not paid because of the honest, though mistaken, belief by the plaintiff that they were not owing; it is also admitted that no claim therefor was ever made by the Division until more than four years had elapsed. In explanation of its delay the Division's brief on appeal refers to the magnitude of its overall task as evidenced by statistics set forth in its annual reports. It would have been better practice to have embodied these statistics in the record below (Pennsylvania Railroad Co. v. Department of Public Utilities, 14 N.J. 411, 427 (1954)); in any event they are not in dispute and we take judicial notice of them.
R.S. 43:21-14(b), under which the plaintiff's obligation for contributions became due, originally contained no limitation whatever. However, it was duly amended by L. 1952, c. 187, p. 658, which added the following: "provided, however, that except in the event of fraud, no employer shall be liable for contributions, penalties, or interest unless assessed before four years have elapsed from the time when
the contributions were due." See also L. 1952, c. 337; L. 1955, c. 65. The Division contends that this amendment was wholly prospective and had no application to claims which were payable prior to its passage; on the other hand the plaintiff contends that it applied not only to future claims but also retrospectively to past due claims where, as here, there still remained reasonable time within the prescribed four-year limitation during which the Division could assert such claims. The plaintiff points out that L. 1952, c. 187, was actually approved on May 16, 1952 (though it was not effective until July 1, 1952) and that the four-year period (calculated from the date on which its obligations became due) did not expire until January 31, 1954.
Although specific limitations had been established earlier in Roman and English Law, the first general limitation applicable to personal actions in the common law was enacted in 1623. See Atkinson, Some Procedural Aspects of the Statute of Limitations, 27 Col. L. Rev. 157, 165 (1927); Note, Developments in the Law -- Statutes of Limitations, 63 Harv. L. Rev. 1177, 1178 (1950). Courts at first viewed such limitations with hostility but they soon accepted the position, which now prevails, that they should not be so regarded since "they rest upon sound policy, and tend to the peace and welfare of society." McLean, J., in McCluny v. Silliman, 3 Pet. 270, 278, 28 U.S. 270, 278, 7 L. Ed. 676, 679 (1830). Cf. Pinckney and Bruen v. Burrage and Stephens, 31 N.J.L. 21, 23 (Sup. Ct. 1864); Belles v. Belles, 12 N.J.L. 339, 346 (Sup. Ct. 1831). See also 1 Wood, Limitations 55 (4 th ed. 1916): "While formerly pleas of limitations were looked upon with disfavor, statutes of limitations are now viewed with favor as statutes of repose, and are construed liberally, and so as to advance the policy they are designed to promote."
Ordinarily the federal and state governments are immune from the operation of general statutes of limitations; historically this appears to be a survival of the Crown's prerogatives, but in modern times it is said to rest upon the desire to protect the public revenues from loss resulting from
the inadvertence or neglect of public employees. See Trustees for the Support of Public Schools v. Ott & Brewer Co., 135 N.J. Eq. 174, 177 (Ch. 1944); Guaranty Trust Co. of New York v. United States, 304 U.S. 126, 132, 58 S. Ct. 785, 82 L. Ed. 1224, 1227 (1938). Cf. Keasbey, The Statute of Limitations and the Rights of the Public, 19 N.J.L.J. 23 (1896). However, there would seem to be nothing to prevent the federal and state governments from forthrightly providing that claims by them or their governmental divisions shall be barred if not pursued within a stated period of time. See United States v. Lindsay, 346 U.S. 568, 74 S. Ct. 287, 98 L. Ed. 300 (1953); State v. Owen, 23 N.J. Misc. 123, 130 (Sup. Ct. 1945). Such action fairly affords repose to those concerned and also tends to serve the public interest by stimulating the expeditious assertion of public claims; it should not meet with resistance in the form of narrow judicial construction. Compare United States v. Updike, 281 U.S. 489, 496, 50 S. Ct. 367, 74 L. Ed. 984, ...