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Reiser v. Pension Commission

Decided: December 7, 1976.


Martin, J.s.c.


[147 NJSuper Page 174] This case comes before this court by way of an action in lieu of prerogative writs. The facts, having been stipulated, will be stated in a summary manner. The plaintiff retired from his position as a county detective in 1975 at the age of 68, after having served continuously as an employee of Passaic County for 33 years. He was first married in 1938 but his first wife died in 1962. Prior to retiring in 1968, he remarried after he was 50 years old to a woman who was 15 years his junior. Plaintiff was

advised by defendant Pension Commission that his second wife, in the event of his death during the period of his retirement, would not be eligible to receive widow's benefits as provided for under N.J.S.A. 43:10-19 et seq. , or under N.J.S.A. 43:10-18.50 et seq. Therefore, plaintiff has brought this action demanding a declaratory judgment that plaintiff is entitled to benefits pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:10-26, or in the alternative, declaratory judgment that N.J.S.A. 43:10-18.50 et seq. , insofar as said provisions operate to deprive the plaintiff of benefits otherwise accruing to him pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:10-26, are violative of the due process and equal protection clauses of the United States and New Jersey Constitutions.

Plaintiff has raised four issues which this court must consider in rendering its judgment. First, does the enactment of N.J.S.A. 43:10-18.50 et seq. operate to deprive the plaintiff of benefits he would otherwise receive upon retirement under the terms of N.J.S.A. 43:10-19 et seq. Second, assuming that N.J.S.A. 43:10-18.50 et seq. does apply to plaintiff, is it discriminatory and violative of the equal protection provisions of the New Jersey and United States Constitutions to the extent that it denies benefits to plaintiff's widow, because she is more than 15 years younger than the plaintiff and married him when he was over the age of 50 years. Third, is N.J.S.A. 43:10-18.50 et seq. discriminatory and violative of plaintiff's equal protection rights in that it infringes on his fundamental right to marry. Fourth, is N.J.S.A. 43:10-18.50 et seq. violative of plaintiff's due process rights in that it denies to plaintiff and his wife vested property rights without due process of law by withholding from plaintiff's widow benefits she would otherwise receive under N.J.S.A. 43:10-19 et seq.

Plaintiff contends that his widow is entitled to those benefits provided under N.J.S.A. 43:10-19 et seq. , while the State contends that the provisions of N.J.S.A. 43:10-18.50 et seq. should apply to plaintiff so as to deny his widow the right to receive pension benefits. Plaintiff argues

that the enactment of N.J.S.A. 43:10-18.50 et seq. can be interpreted as not operating to deprive him of the benefits granted by N.J.S.A. 43:10-19 et seq. but as providing additional benefits supplemental to those provided by N.J.S.A. 43:10-19 et seq.

Plaintiff's counsel in his brief makes reference to several New Jersey cases which state that pension funds are to be liberally construed to effectuate their remedial intent and that such construction should resolve all reasonable doubts in favor of the applicability of the statute to the particular case. Kochen v. Consolidated Police and Firemen's Pension Fund Comm'n , 71 N.J. Super. 463 (App. Div. 1962); Hillman v. Board of Trustees, Public Employees' Retire. Sys. , 109 N.J. Super. 449 (App. Div. 1970); In Re Vaccaro , 131 N.J. Super. 264 (App. Div. 1974), aff'd 66 N.J. 151 (1974). However, in Alexander Hamilton Hotel Corp. v. Board of Review , 127 N.J.L. 184 (Sup. Ct. 1941), the court stated that a liberal construction of a statute does not connote a disregard of the plain meaning of the language employed to express the legislative objective. Lynch v. Edgewater , 8 N.J. 279 (1951); Fedi v. Ryan , 118 N.J.L. 516 (Sup. Ct. 1937); Bartholf v. Board of Review , 36 N.J. Super. 349 (App. Div. 1955). Belfer v. Borrella , 6 N.J. Super. 557 (Law Div. 1949), aff'd 9 N.J. Super. 287 (App. Div. 1950), hold that courts must regard statutes as meaning what they say and avoid giving them any construction which would distort their meaning. Courts have no legislative authority and should not construe statutes any more broadly or give them any greater effect than their language requires. Matthews v. Irvington Bd. of Ed. , 31 N.J. Super. 292 (App. Div. 1954); Mountain Lakes Bd. of Ed. v. Maas , 56 N.J. Super. 245 (App. Div. 1959), aff'd 31 N.J. 537 (1960). The specifications of who shall benefit by the terms of a statute and under what conditions is a legislative function. The court should not construe the statute to enlarge the benefited class. Lynch v. Edgewater, supra; Marino v. Zdanowica , 66 N.J. Super. 512 (Law

Div. 1961). A statute must be considered according to what appears to have been the intention of the Legislature. When statutes relating to the same subject matter are repugnant or inconsistent, and the latter statute is clearly intended to prescribe the only rule which should govern the case, it will be construed as repealing the earlier act. Montclair v. Stanoyevich , 6 N.J. 479 (1951); West Orange v. Jordan Corp. , 52 N.J. Super. 533 (Cty. Ct. 1958). This court will interpret the statutes in controversy in light of these applicable canons of construction.

N.J.S.A. 43:10-26, which provides pension benefits under the county detectives retirement system to a widow upon the death of her husband after retirement, uses the term "widow" in its generic sense with no further restrictions and, therefore, would provide benefits to the plaintiff's widow. However, N.J.S.A. 43:10-18.50, relating to definitions as used in the act (43:10-18.50 to 43:10-18.75), and N.J.S.A. 43:10-18.64(h), dealing with the eligibility of widows or widowers, both define widow as

This restricted definition of widow for the state pension plan would exclude the plaintiff's wife from the benefits provided therein since plaintiff was over the age of 50 years at the time he married a woman more than 15 years younger.

There appears to be no question that N.J.S.A. 43:10-18.50 et seq. has, in fact, superseded N.J.S.A. 43:10-19 et seq. and, if applied, will deny benefits to plaintiff's wife. Noted above, N.J.S.A. 43:10-19, there is a cross reference which reads: "County detectives retirement system superseded, counties of 300,000 to 325,000 see ยง 43:10-18.56."

N.J.S.A. 43:10-18.56, which is entitled "Other county retirement system superseded; transfer of moneys and assets," states that

It is the intention of this act (43:10-18.50 to 43:10-18.75) that the retirement system herein provided for shall * * * supersede and take the place of any county retirement system which shall be in operation in such county under and by virtue of the Revised Statutes, as follows: County detectives in counties of the * * * second [class] * * * and that such other county retirement systems shall be merged into and become part of the retirement system herein provided for and which shall be construed to be a continuation of such other county retirement systems.

N.J.S.A. 43:10-18.55 states that the members of the retirement system created by the act (N.J.S.A. 43:10-18.50 to 43:10-18.75) should include "all employees who, at the time of the adoption and approval of this act, are members of any of the following retirement systems in effect in said county: County detectives in counties of the * * * second class."

It is clear, that the legislative intent of this act (43:10-18.50 to 43:10-18.75) was to supersede the existing statute, N.J.S.A. 43:10-19 et seq. , with reference to retirement funds for counties with a population of 300,000 to 325,000 people. Passaic County fell within those guidelines at the time of the enactment of this statute. Plaintiff makes reference to several amendments made to N.J.S.A. 43:10-19, county detectives retirement system, after the enactment of N.J.S.A. 43:10-18.50 et seq. , thereby indicating the continued viability of the system. This legislative treatment is due to the fact that the county detectives retirement system has been superseded only in part and is still in effect today for those counties which do not fit within the numerical reference.

N.J.S.A. 43:10-18.58a(a) states what benefits a widow is to receive under the state pension fund and that these benefits are "subject, however to any other limitations of the act to which this act is amendatory and supplementary".

Being amendatory and supplementary, this section uses the term "widow" as defined in N.J.S.A. 43:10-18.50 which would deprive the plaintiff's wife of any widow's benefits since the plaintiff was over 50 years of age when he married his present wife who was 15 years his junior. If a word in a statute is given a statutory definition, that definition is controlling. Hudson Cty. National Bank v. Provident Inst. , 80 N.J. Super. 339 (Ch. Div. 1963), aff'd 44 N.J. 282 (1965); Eagle Truck Transport, Inc. v. Board of Review , 29 N.J. 280 (1959); State v. Young , 95 N.J. Super. 535 (Cty. Ct. 1967). Plaintiff's second contention is that the statute is discriminatory and violative of his equal protection rights. The alleged discrimination is based on the fact that only county detectives in counties whose population is over 800,000 or between 300,000 and 325,000 are members of state pension plans which place the restriction on the class of widows who can qualify for pension benefits, while similarly situated county detectives in other counties are still under the county detective retirement system where the limitation does not exist.

At the outset it should be noted that for an act to be declared unconstitutional its repugnancy to the Constitution must leave no room for reasonable doubt. Brunetti v. New Milford , 68 N.J. 576 (1975); Gangemi v. Berry , 25 N.J. 1 (1957). There being a strong presumption that a statute is constitutional, plaintiff bears a heavy burden in his attempt to disprove the presumed validity of the pension act. Harvey v. Essex Cty. Bd. of Freeholders , 30 N.J. 381 (1959); Yellow Cab Co. of Camden v. State , 126 N.J. Super. 81 (App. Div. 1973); Blair v. Erie Lackawanna Ry. Co. , 124 N.J. Super. 162 (Law Div. 1973).

The Equal Protection Clause secures equality of right by forbidding arbitrary discrimination between persons similarly situated. Schmidt v. Newark Bd. of Adj. , 9 N.J. 405 (1952); Levy v. Louisiana , 391 U.S. 68, 88 S. Ct. 1509, 20 L. Ed. 2d 436 (1968); Two Guys from ...

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