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Wolfersberger v. Borough of Point Pleasant Beach

New Jersey Supreme Court


October 22, 1997

JOSEPH WOLFERSBERGER, JR., PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
BOROUGH OF POINT PLEASANT BEACH, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.

On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at ___ N.J. Super. ___ (1996).

Chief Justice Poritz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'hern, Garibaldi, Stein and Coleman join in this opinion.

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

Joseph Wolfersberger, Jr. v. Borough of Point Pleasant Beach (A-16-97)

(NOTE: This Court wrote no full opinion in this case. Rather, the Court's affirmance of the judgment of the Appellate Division is based substantially on the reasons expressed in the Per Curiam opinion below.)

Argued September 22, 1997 -- Decided October 22, 1997

PER CURIAM

Joseph Wolfersberger, Jr., was employed as a policeman by the Borough of Point Pleasant Beach (Borough), until his retirement on November 1, 1993. At the time of his retirement, Wolfersberger had served twenty-three years with the Borough. To be eligible to receive a "special retirement" pension under N.J.S.A. 43:16A-11.1, a policeman or fireman employed by a municipality must have "established 25 years of creditable service." Wolfersberger previously had served in the United States armed forces for two or more years; therefore, he qualified for this pension by paying into the annuity savings fund of the Police and Firemen's Retirement System (PFRS) the amount necessary to make up the difference between what he had actually contributed to the annuity fund and what he would have contributed had he actually worked the full twenty-five years.

Wolfersberger also was covered under a collective bargaining agreement between the Borough and the local unit of the Police Benevolent Association (PBA). A provision in that agreement provided that, as of January 1, 1992, any officer represented by the collective bargaining unit who completed twenty-five years of service would receive husband and wife medical benefits at no expense to the employee upon retirement from Borough employment. As of the date of Wolfersberger's retirement, N.J.S.A. 40A:10-23 required that retired employees pay the entire cost of medical coverage for themselves and their dependents, unless the employer at its discretion assumes the entire cost and pays all premiums for an employee who retires on a disability pension or after twenty-five years' or more service with the employer.

Wolfersberger sought payment by the Borough of his and his wife's medical benefits, contending that he is entitled to such payment, pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement and N.J.S.A. 40A:10-23. According to Wolfersberger, the phrases "twenty-five (25) years of service" in the collective bargaining agreement and "25 years' or more service with the employer" in N.J.S.A. 40A:10-23 should both be read to include the two years of service credit he purchased from PFRS to qualify for his retirement pension. The Borough disagreed, reasoning that for the purpose of its collective bargaining agreement and N.J.S.A. 40A:10-23, "service" means only actual service.

Because the Borough refused to pay premiums for the Wolfersbergers' health insurance, Wolfersberger filed suit to compel payment of the insurance premiums. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the motion Judge initially ruled in Wolfersberger's favor, but on reconsideration ruled in favor of the Borough.

Wolfersberger appealed to the Appellate Division, contending, among other things, that N.J.S.A. 40A:10-23 and N.J.S.A. 43:16A-1 et seq. are to be read together and, therefore, the term "service" in both statutes should be construed to include credited service. The Appellate Division found in favor of the Borough, concluding that Wolfersberger's contention that the two statutes should be construed together disregards the significant differences in the language, purposes, and legislative history of the two statutes.

The Appellate Division noted that in N.J.S.A. 43:16A-1 et seq., "service" is defined as "service as a policeman or fireman paid for by an employer," and that the United States military is nowhere defined as an employer. In addition, Wolfersberger purchased credits to satisfy the prerequisites for a "special retirement" pension, pursuant to a provision of N.J.S.A. 43:16A-1 et seq., which defines eligibility for this pension in terms of "creditable service." However, the Appellate Division found no comparable provision authorizing counting "creditable" or credited service toward the twenty-five years of service required by N.J.S.A. 40A:10-23 as it existed when Wolfersberger retired. According to the court, neither this statute nor any other allows for anything other than actual service with the employer for the twenty-five-year period. The Appellate Division further reasoned that the two statutes should not be construed together because N.J.S.A. 43:16A-11.11 imposes no direct financial burden on the employer, whereas N.J.S.A. 40A:10-23 authorizes a municipality to assume a financial burden.

The Appellate Division further held that the legislative history to the amendment to N.J.S.A. 40A:10-23, requires that the statute be interpreted as limiting a municipality's authority to pay health insurance premiums only on behalf of those employees who have completed twenty-five years of actual service in its employment. In view of that statutory interpretation, the Appellate Division found the intent of the parties' to the collective bargaining agreement immaterial.

The Supreme Court granted Wolfersberger's petition for certification.

HELD:

Judgment of the Appellate Division is affirmed substantially for the reasons expressed in the per curiam opinion below. At the time of Joseph Wolfersberger, Jr.'s retirement, N.J.S.A. 40A:10-23 limited a municipality's authority to pay health insurance premiums only on behalf of those employees who have completed twenty-five years of actual service in the municipality's employ.

Judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES HANDLER, POLLOCK, O'HERN, GARIBALDI, STEIN and COLEMAN join in this PER CURIAM opinion.

PER CURIAM

The judgment is affirmed, substantially for the reasons expressed in the opinion of the Appellate Division, reported at N.J. Super. (1996).

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES HANDLER, POLLOCK, O'HERN, GARIBALDI, STEIN and COLEMAN join in this opinion.

19971022


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