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Outland v. Board of Trustees of the Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund

December 15, 1999


Before Judges Muir, Jr., Wallace, Jr. and Cuff.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wallace, Jr., J.A.D.


Argued: September 28, 1999

On appeal from the Board of Trustees of the Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund.

Appellant Mona Outland appeals from a decision of the Board of Trustees of the Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund (Board) denying her request to file an application for accidental disability retirement. The Board determined that appellant was not a member of the pension system because she had voluntarily withdrawn her contributions. On appeal, appellant contends she established good cause to reopen and consider her retirement selection. We agree and reverse.

The facts are relatively simple. Appellant was born on August 7, 1959. She commenced employment as a teacher of emotionally disturbed children for the Monmouth-Ocean Educational Services Commission on January 24, 1994 and was enrolled in the Teacher's Pension and Annuity Fund (TPAF) on February 1, 1994. Appellant suffered severe and disabling injuries when she was assaulted by one of her students on April 22, 1994. She applied for and received workers' compensation benefits. *fn1 Appellant was unable to return to work for the balance of the school year which ended June 30, 1994. On that date, appellant concluded her last day of active service in public employment. At that time, appellant was a member in good standing of the TPAF with approximately five months of credited service.

Outland certified that upon recommendation of her employer, she decided to withdraw her pension contributions in order to avoid taxes. On January 26, 1995, she completed an Application for Withdrawal of her accumulated pension funds. In completing the application, appellant marked the box to indicate she was "receiving periodic benefits under a claim filed for workers' compensation based on an injury incurred in public employment" and that she had a pending claim. Appellant also checked the box for her election to withdraw her pension contributions and waive her right to receive a monthly allowance and Group Life Insurance at retirement in favor of receiving a refund of her pension contributions. In Part 2 of the application, her employer certified that appellant's last salary deduction was made for the month of June 1994 and that she was no longer under contract, but that appellant was receiving Workers' Compensation benefits and had a pending claim.

At the bottom of the application the form provided "[p]lease read instructions on reverse side before completion." The reverse side of the application contained instructions for separate categories of Withdrawal, Deferred Retirement, Inactive Membership Transfer Privileges, Federal Income Tax Liability, Group Term Life Insurance, Workers' Compensation, Purchase of Former Membership Service, Supplemental Annuity Collective Trust, Execution of Form, and Military Service Contribution. The instructions under Workers' Compensation provided as follows:

Under the provisions of the statute, an employee who is receiving periodic Workers' Compensation benefits as the result of an injury incurred in public employment is considered an active employee and an active member of the Retirement system. Therefore, the employee can not withdraw his pension contributions while he is receiving Workers' Compensation benefits or has a claim pending, or litigation pending regarding Workers' Compensation. His employer is obligated by statute to pay the member's full percent of pension contributions based on the salary the member was receiving immediately prior to the receipt of Workers' Compensation benefits.

On February 27, 1995, appellant received a check for $405.19 representing her total pension contributions absent the applicable taxes.

Over two years later, in May 1997, appellant submitted her application for accidental disability retirement with the Division of Pensions and Benefits (Division) which was processed in a regular fashion. She indicated that she was totally and permanently disabled from her injuries of April 23, 1994. On June 11, 1997, the Division notified petitioner that her request to file for accidental disability retirement was denied since she withdrew her pension contributions.

Appellant appealed the TPAF Board's denial in writing on July 25, 1997. She claimed that she was not advised orally or in writing that she would be waiving her right to proceed with an accidental disability pension application if she withdrew her contribution from the pension plan. At its meeting on September 11, 1997, the TPAF Board denied appellant's application for an accidental disability retirement allowance on the grounds that she elected to waive her rights to a retirement benefit, therefore, relinquishing all her rights and privileges associated with the retirement system. The Board also approved appellant's request for a hearing and by letter dated September 12, 1997, the contested matter was referred to the Office of Administrative Law.

The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) concluded that the Division was not required to provide specific information concerning possible adverse consequences to an individual withdrawing her contributions. The ALJ further reasoned that a reasonable person would understand that withdrawal terminates membership and the benefits associated with membership. The TPAF Board accepted the ALJ's recommendations and affirmed its prior decision. This appeal followed.

Before addressing appellant's arguments, we note that our review is limited. Brady v. Board of Rev., 152 N.J. 197, 210 (1997). We will only reverse a decision of an administrative agency if it is arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable. Ibid. We must defer to an agency's expertise and superior knowledge of a particular field. Greenwood v. State Police Training Ctr., 127 N.J. 500, 513 (1992). We may not substitute our judgment for that of the agency even though we might well have reached a different conclusion. State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 471 (1999); Greenwood, supra, 127 N.J. at 513. If the original findings are supported by substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole, we must accept them. Brady, supra, 152 N.J. at 210. The interest of justice, however, authorizes a ...

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